Physics scholar youngest grad at Southern University

Young Gifted & Black Series

By Taki S. Raton

Polite Stewart, Jr. in a pictured taken at Southern University and A & M College in Baton Rouge, LA. (Photo by Edward Pratt)

Dr. Edward Alexander Bouchet (1852-1918) would have been very proud of our featured young achiever in this current edition of YGB. Dr. Bouchet completed his dissertation on “Measuring Refractive Indices” in Yale’s Ph.D. program in 1876, distinguishing him as being the first African American to earn a doctorate in the United States. Upon entering the graduate school in Yale, he earned his doctorate in physics in just two years and would become at that time among only 20 Americans of any race to receive a Ph.D. in physics and the sixth to earn a Ph.D. in physics from Yale.

On Friday, December 14, 2012, Polite Stewart, Jr. was among the 508 new alumni graduating from Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He is young, gifted and Black.

Reflective of a proud legacy of Black excellence and mastery as anchored by Dr. Bouchet 136 years ago, Polite graduated cum laude out of the university’s Department of Physics at the age of 18, thus becoming the youngest graduate in the school’s 132 year history.

Polite began his studies as a 14 year-old freshman when he enrolled at Southern in 2008. He was recommended to begin his college career after two years in the university’s Timbuktu Academy, a college readiness program.

According to Jarrett L. Carter in HBCU Digest, Timbuktu Academy is designed to cultivate comprehensive development in math and English in preparation for standardized college readiness exams on the PSAT, SAT and the ACT.

Polite excelled in this comprehensive curriculum and soon began tutoring high school students in science who were nearly four years older than him.

Young Polite, “shined like the rising sun,” said Dr. Diola Bagayoko, chairman of the Southern University Physics Department and director of the Timbuktu Academy. As noted by Carter, Bagayoko worked with Stewart since he was 12 years-old and helped to direct him towards several research opportunities.

Such pursuits for Polite included spending a summer looking for ways to mark specific proteins in cancer cells using florescent dye. The objective was to more easily find the cells so they could be destroyed. He was also a part of a research team at North Carolina State University where he worked to create self-cleaning, anti-glare glass that would repel vast amounts of water and oil through the use of a concept called hydrophobicity.

“He has made more than four technical presentations over his college career and has distinguished himself as a researcher in a marvelous fashion,” says Bagayoko. He adds that Polite is “highly ethical and very hard working. When he’s among his peers, you feel humbled because even amidst attention about his accomplishments and his age, he remains focused on trying hard to make himself and those around him better.”

As cited by Hannington Dia in his December 17, 2012 NEWS ONE for Black America’s article ‘Physics Prodigy Graduates College At 18’, Polite, including his parents and a host of relatives on his father’s side, continues a tradition of Southern University graduates.

Polite was only 3 years old when his parents pulled him out of day care and his father began teaching him at home.

“His father and I could tell early on that he wanted information. There was intensity in his focus and he started reading when he was 3,” says his mother, Ava Stewart as cited in a December 13, 2012 Southern University Site blog.

The university blog writing notes that Polite traces his love for academics to the dinosaur books his father brought him as a young child. Later, as a toddler, Polite began watching scientific documentaries where his interest in herpetology, entomology and paleontology grew. “I was pretty much interested in all the sciences,” he said.

Coupled with a homeschooling regiment, mother Ava and his father, Polite Stewart, Sr., enrolled him in programs over the years to “advance his learning and let him be around other kids,” she adds.

Mrs. Stewart recalls that Polite was doing 9th grade work at 10 years-old and was tackling college credits at 12.

“I didn’t’ have any reservations when he started college. We had to let him go. We didn’t want to hold him back.”

His father says in the Digest that, “we knew that he was going to go to college early,” and that he had an ease with retaining information and concepts. When he reached the age of 12, his family stated, “Things had gotten to the point where we noticed that he was a little faster in learning information.

The Timbuktu Academy challenged him, pushed him and he hung in there and he enjoyed the experience.”

Polite stated in an interview that he realized in his first physics class at Timbuktu that Southern was just right for him. He lends credit to one teacher in particular at the academy for being that illuminating beacon on his road to success.

“Dr. Stephen McGuire was one of those people who really made me feel like I was in the right place. He tried to teach theory behind problems, equations and concepts. He was cordial, polite, tried to get us to the point of actually thinking. He was one of the few that tried to take us to our limit and past that.”

This remarkable student at the age of 14 had offers from colleges across the country, and who would not want a child prodigy on their campus? But it would have been difficult, according to published accounts, for his parents to send him across the country at such a young age.

The most logical choice was for him to enroll in Southern where he was familiar with the college, where he had taken high school-level courses at the school’s acclaimed Timbuktu Academy and, more importantly, where he would be only a 10 minute drive from home to campus.

So what’s next for this potential Bouchet in the making? Now at the age of 19, he plans to complete his research projects at North Carolina State University and enter graduate school.

His vision is to pursue a career in which he can apply the science he loves to the real world.

As noted in Megan K. Scott’s closing words in her ‘The Root’ article on young Polite, “I just love learning. It doesn’t matter what.

That’s why I like science so much. There is always something new to be discovered.”