19-Year Old ALS Researcher Among Lab’s Youngest Scientists
— By Sabin Russell
It is early morning at Berkeley Lab, and Polite Stewart, Jr. is preparing to gather synchrotron X-ray data from Beamline 7.3.3 at the Advanced Light Source. Not a bad job for a 19-year-old from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where others his age are just now collecting their high school diplomas.
Stewart (his first name is pronounced Po-LEET) is accustomed to running ahead of the curve. He enrolled as a 14-year-old at Southern University-Baton Rouge, and graduated in December with a bachelor’s degree in physics. He met his first particle accelerator at Fermi Lab, where he worked a summer job on a muon detector. Last summer, he interned as a researcher at North Carolina State University on a project to develop non-glare smart window glass.
Stewart applied for the job at Berkeley Lab after seeing a listing on LinkedIn. “I really didn’t expect to hear back,” he says. But his application caught the attention of Alex Hexemer and Eric Schaible, and within days he had an interview on Skype, a job offer as a Post-Baccalaureate Fellow, and a plane ticket to the Bay Area. His first day on the job was May 13. Since then, he’s been immersed in studying LabView, programming software for electronic and serial communication; and IGOR, software for analyzing laboratory results.
Stewart’s parents are also graduates of Southern University, one of the nation’s 106 historically black colleges, and both taught high school in Baton Rouge. They knew Polite was gifted, and when the public school system would not start him off at 4th grade level, his father, Polite D. Stewart, Sr., retired and began home-schooling their only son. “I’d wake up at 8 a.m.,” Polite Jr. recalls. “First it was phys ed, then math, then social studies, spelling, reading, science, and vocabulary. When Mom came home from work, English class began.”
It was surprisingly easy for Stewart to blend into college life as a 14-year-old. “A lot of students couldn’t tell I was young,’’ he says. “By the time I was 14, I had a full beard.” Polite concedes that home schooling had its drawbacks in terms of social skills and emotional maturity, but he caught up. “In college, I got to experience what everyone else experienced in high school. I got to see other people, make friends, go to parties,” he says. And while many of his fellow students knew little about his age, his teachers did. “And they expected more of me, too,” Stewart recalls.
The most demanding teacher of all is the one Stewart calls his mentor and role-model: Dr. Diola Bagayoko, chairman of the Physics Department. “I look forward to good things from this young man,” Bagayoko says of his star pupil. “As a freshman, he was already tutoring some of the older students in math or physics. They respected him.”
A native of Mali, Bagayoko is also founder of Timbuktu Academy, a summer academics program for youth. Stewart was nine-years old when he met Bagayoko, during his first summer enrolled at Timbuktu. “Home schooling has a side-effect,” says Bagayoko. “A student grows up without interfacing with their peers over the years. It can be a problem. You need to be immersed in a peer atmosphere to develop the social and cognitive skills you need to function.”
Stewart says that “if I was diagnosed today, they would say I have a short attention span.” He is a voracious reader, and became an ardent fan of Japanese anime and manga. From that began a longtime fascination with martial arts. He was president of the Martial Arts Club at Southern University.
After his yearlong fellowship is completed, he hopes to head to graduate school to study more physics. The one down the hill would do just fine, but Stewart reveals that his current desire is to study physics in a different language. “My dream is to go to Tokyo University,” he says.