Connecticut College Magazine · Fall 2009

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Physicist Mohamed Diagne ´97 follows in the footsteps of retiring Professor Arlan Mantz. Photo by Ron Cowie

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Laser Focus

Laser Focus
Mohamed Diagne ´97. Photo by Ron Cowie

A favorite son returns to the College as a physics professor, filling the post of his retiring mentor

By David Holahan


It´s not unusual for Connecticut College students to stay in touch for many years with the professors who mentored them. But rarely does a student return to fill the shoes of his or her former professor.

Mohamed Diagne ´97 earned a degree in physics and mathematics from Connecticut College 12 years ago, and, a few years after that, a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Brown University. This fall he joins the Connecticut College faculty as the Oakes Ames Associate Professor of Physics, a tenure track position in the Department of Physics, Astronomy and Geophysics. He brings with him a wealth of expertise in semiconductor device physics, flip chip technology, vacuum deposition techniques and other complex systems. His former mentor, Arlan Mantz, the Oakes Ames Professor of Physics, retired in June but will continue as a senior research scientist at the College.

After nearly a decade doing cutting-edge research in optics and microelectronics, helping to develop highly sensitive photonic devices and data transmission technology for both military and civilian applications, Diagne, 37, is returning to his second home along with his wife, Fatima, who is enrolled as an undergraduate biology major, and their two young children.

Diagne says he has always had a fond place in his heart for his alma mater, which showed such faith in his potential and nurtured him through his formative academic years. He is grateful to all of his professors who would listen and provide guidance to him, not just in science but also in his life.

“He is really hitting the ground running,” says Mantz. He recalls that when he joined the faculty in 1995, Diagne asked to help him set up his laboratory, including the stabilized tunable diode lasers. “It soon became obvious, listening to his questions, that Mohamed was probably more interested in making lasers than in using them as a research tool,” Mantz says. In 1996, Mantz helped Diagne land a summer internship at a company that made lasers; a year later, he helped him prepare for his interview at Brown. Then last year, the soon-to-be retired professor suggested his former student to senior administrators and Dean of the Faculty Roger Brooks as his replacement.

“We were looking for someone who could really have an immediate and positive impact on our students through his teaching and research activities, and it struck me that Mohamed had exactly the credentials we were looking for.” Mantz adds that many physics majors and potential majors express an interest in engineering, and Diagne could give them personal insights and expert guidance based on firsthand experiences.

From Brown to MIT

Diagne´s first job, after earning a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Brown University in 2001, was at Xanoptix in New Hampshire, where he worked on arrays of VCSELs, or vertical cavity surface emitting lasers. VCSELs are used to create transceivers that can send massive quantities of information within a local network via fiber-optic cables. The quantity of data involved could not be transmitted by computers or on the Internet, Diagne says.

In 2005 he began working at MIT Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington, Mass., a Department of Defense research facility. While much of his work for Lincoln was classified, Diagne outlined in broad terms what he did there, including research on semiconductor lasers that can track aircraft and create and send images remotely (for example, from the ground to an airplane), as well as photo detectors that can take pictures in virtually no available light. “These detectors are going to be so sensitive that they can detect a single photon,” he says. “Even in the dark they can tell you that they have seen something.”

While Diagne will commute to Lexington once a week this year, the focus of his work there has shifted to the bio-medical field. Connecticut College and Brown University are collaborating with Lincoln on research into optogenetic neuro-stimulation, which uses optical signals to analyze and diagnose brain function in people with conditions such as Parkinson´s disease.

Coming to America

When Diagne arrived in America from Senegal on Dec. 15, 1993, he was what is termed in sports “a walk-on.” No one had asked him to come, and no one was waiting for him when he arrived. But Diagne is a problem-solver of the highest degree. He soon landed a job and started sending a portion of his paycheck home to his family.

His big break came on a sunny day when he was watching a soccer match in Central Park. A player was injured, and Diagne offered to play in his place. His skill landed him a spot on the squad and, even more important, a place to live, with one of his teammates. In the fall he enrolled at Westchester Community College, where several fellow students urged him to apply to a school of higher education called UConn. Being unacquainted with the local collegiate scene, Diagne first rang up another institution altogether.

“I think this is the best thing that happened to me,” he says. It was a felicitous happenstance all around. He was accepted for the spring semester of 1995 and graduated with honors in just two and a half years with a double major in physics and math. In his spare time, he helped to lead the varsity soccer team to the Division III NCAA tournament, a first for the Camels.

Diagne´s new position gives him what he feels is an ideal situation, an opportunity to teach and to continue doing research with leading colleagues in his field. And if anyone knows how to take advantage of an opportunity, he does.

“I didn´t have to make a huge transition from Senegal to here,” Diagne says. “This is a smaller school, and people live here like in a family. The opportunity I had here to deal with professors almost on a one-to-one basis had a great impact on what I have learned. I am trying to give some of that back by teaching here, to help students not just with their education but with their lives, helping them to understand what is out there for them.”


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