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Ibrahima Bah ’06 (Bronx, N.Y.) is taking full advantage of his opportunities as a physics major, including intensive research on galaxies this summer with Lyle Hoffman, professor and head of physics.

“It’s a small department so you get to know faculty well,” says Bah, who also is pursuing a second B.S. degree in mathematics. “The student-professor interaction is very good, and they are willing to entertain any type of discussion. This is a notable thing to have in a department.”

“The department is a family of its own,” he adds. “You can get together and interact. It goes beyond a subject; it’s a more personal, more intimate department.”

Bah conducted research in radio astronomy this summer alongside Hoffman through Lafayette’s distinctive EXCEL Scholars program, in which students assist faculty with research while earning a stipend. The program has helped to make Lafayette a national leader in undergraduate research. Many of the more than 160 students who participate in EXCEL each year go on to publish papers in scholarly journals and/or present their research at conferences.

They studied galaxies using information from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, part of the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center, which is operated by Cornell University in agreement with the National Science Foundation.

The observatory operates 24 hours a day, every day, providing time, electronic, computer, travel, and logistical support to scientists all over the world. It is recognized as one of the most important national centers for research in radio astronomy, planetary radar, and terrestrial aeronomy (quality of the atmosphere). Each year about 200 scientists visit the observatory to conduct research.

Radio astronomy is the study of the natural radio energy emitted by galaxies, erupting stars, clouds of gas, pulsars, and quasars. The radio telescope at Arecibo allows astronomers to find very soft radio emissions from these regions of the universe. Information taken from these emissions lets them measure the distance and mass of galaxies and how galaxies cluster. Use of radio astronomy in this galaxy is providing general information about the physics of galaxies.

Bah studied at Columbia University in summer 2003 alongside David Helfand, chair of its astronomy department. Their research focused on locating the “corpses” of stars in the sky. This experience helped prepare Bah for the work he did this summer.

“It was great in that it strengthened my interest in science and allowed me to see and feel what it is to be a scientist,” says Bah. “That is, the joy of finding things and the frustration of having things not go the way you want them.”

One of Bah’s favorite courses at Lafayette has been Introduction to Quantum Mechanics (Physics 215) with Andrew Kortyna, assistant professor of physics. The class focuses on Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity and the background and inner workings of quantum mechanics.

“In 215 you really get into physics,” Bah says. “Your mind opens up to something completely different. The theory is simple yet the implications are so profound. Anyone who take this class and appreciates it will be a physics major. It’s that good.”

Michael Stark, assistant professor of physics, encouraged Bah to attend the National Society for Black Physicists conference in Washington, D.C., and helped him find funding.

“It was other African Americans doing the same thing I’m doing, which was very inspiring,” he says. “I had a great time. It was a moment when I said ‘Wow, [physics] is for me’.”

Bah serves as historian for Association of Black Collegians, and is a member of International Students Association, Minority Scientists and Engineers, and Physics Club, for which he will serve as vice president next semester. He also is a physics tutor, a mathematics peer tutor, and chair of academic programming for Lafayette’s Family Weekend.

Categorized in: Academic News