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A renowned mentor enjoys his first homecoming

People who struggle with math or science, says Bagayoko, often need just a well-chosen background course or two to develop their innate capabilities.

In December 1977, when he completed his M.S. in physics at Lehigh, Diola Bagayoko was consumed with the desire to leave Pennsylvania for a warmer climate.

“I told everyone I was going to the West Coast or the South because I could no longer take the winter cold,” Bagayoko recalls.

Last week, now an internationally renowned teacher and researcher, Bagayoko returned for the first time to his alma mater.

As the Southern University System Distinguished Professor of Physics in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Bagayoko has published more than 90 journal articles in theoretical physics while helping develop the BZW (Bagayoko Zhao Williams) method of calculating the bandgaps of semiconductors and insulators.

As founder and director of the Timbuktu Academy, Bagayoko has helped prepare hundreds of middle- and high-school students for careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Bagayoko was invited to Lehigh by the physics department to give a presentation titled “Ab-Initio, Self Consistent, Predictive Calculations of Electronic Properties of Semiconductors.”

Critical preparation at Lehigh

In an interview, he credited much of his success to the counseling he received from his physics professors at Lehigh. By emphasizing student mentoring and academic advisement, he says, his professors helped him lay a foundation for future success.

Bagayoko arrived at Lehigh in 1976 from his native Mali in northwestern Africa, where he had earned a B.S. in chemistry and physics from the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Bamako.

After enrolling, he met with Prof. Shelden Radin, adviser for new graduate students. Radin concluded that Bagayoko was well-prepared in many areas of physics and mathematics but deficient in two—classical electrodynamics and complex variables—that were necessary for Ph.D.-level coursework.

“As a result,” says Bagayoko, “I took classical electrodynamics under one of the best professors I ever met, James McLennan. I loved that course. The lowest grade I got on any exam was 98 or 99.”

Radin’s advice taught Bagayoko never to make assumptions about a student’s background or to underestimate the importance of advising.

“Of the 10 strands of systemic mentoring that characterize the Timbuktu Academy,” he says, “the third is comprehensive scientific advisement to learn what the student does and does not know and, based on that, to design the student’s courseload.”

The success of the power law

Founded in 1990, the Timbuktu Academy has twice received the U.S. Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring. Bagayoko himself has received the Lifetime Mentor Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

More than 2,000 K-12 students and 500 college students have completed the academy’s summer program in mathematics and science. Eighty percent of the high school students in the program have gone on to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects in college. Sixty percent of the Southern University students have gone on to pursue graduate degrees in scientific fields.

Every student entering the academy receives a two-page handout describing the “power law of human performance.” Proposed in 1926 and extended by Bagayoko to mathematics and science, the law says knowledge is acquired methodically and cumulatively by mastering a series of increasingly difficult tasks and concepts.

The power law, says Bagayoko, is vital to mastering mathematics and science.

“The power law says first that if you don’t devote adequate time to your studies, you are joking. In STEM subjects, everything is linked. What is in ‘a’ is needed to understand ‘b’ and both are needed to understand ‘c’.

“If you do run into difficulty after devoting adequate time, it is not because you are not intelligent. Instead, there are background materials somewhere that you are missing. That’s all. And you may not be able to know, on your own, what those materials are.

“That is why I remember so well my advisement session with Prof. Radin.”

Never far from Lehigh

Bagayoko’s students have gone on to faculty positions at top universities, and he has won consistent funding from the National Science Foundation, NASA, the ExxonMobil Foundation and others. A grant from NSF’s Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation has enabled him to replicate the Timbuktu Academy’s model to other Louisiana schools. In 2006, Bagayoko was profiled in Science, the nation’s premier scientific journal, and in 2010, he was featured in Lehigh’s Alumni Bulletin.

None of this might have happened, he says, were it not for McLennan, Yong Kim and other physics professors, who helped him gain admission to the doctoral program at Louisiana State University.

When he realized in December 1978 that he needed to live in a warmer climate, Bagayoko says, he had not yet applied to any doctoral programs.

“I didn’t know that one had to do this two semesters ahead of time,” he says. “Because of this, my graduate study was basically terminated.

“However, Prof. Yong Kim, Prof. McLennan and some other faculty members and staff took it upon themselves to arrange for me to go to LSU. What I did was simply pack and go.

“If you’re doing critical pathway analysis, you can see that without this incident, a lot of the things that brought notoriety to Timbuktu Academy and to me would not have happened.

“So coming back to Lehigh is a true homecoming. No question about it.”


Video and photos by Karl Brisseaux ’11

Story by Kurt Pfitzer

Posted on Tuesday, March 27, 2012

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