By Keely Savoie
Four Mount Holyoke College professors were honored with faculty awards at a ceremony on March 8.
Professor of Physics Kathy Aidala and Professor of French Samba Gadjigo were awarded the Meribeth E. Cameron Faculty Award for Scholarship. And Professor of History Kavita Datla and Professor of Economics Jim Hartley received the Mount Holyoke College Faculty Award for Teaching.
President Lynn Pasquerella and Dean of Faculty and acting President-elect Sonya Stephens bestowed the honors. In February, they delivered the news to the professors as they taught their usual classes.
“It was a fun surprise,” said Aidala. “Lynn came to my electronics class with balloons and flowers while I was teaching. The students weren't sure what was going on. They cheered when they found out.”
Meribeth E. Cameron Faculty Awards for Scholarship
Aidala’s academic research, which won her the esteem of her peers and colleagues as well as the award, focuses on charge transport in nanocrystal quantum dots. Using scanning probe microscopy, her work is aimed at improving efficiency in nanostructures and the devices that employ them, such as solar cells.
Aidala is also a fierce advocate for women in science, challenging barriers that keep girls and women from entering the field. Accordingly, she also teaches a course called Gender and Science.
Gadjigo, whose focus is on the power of storytelling in developing personal and cultural narratives, was honored in part for his work in documenting the life and career of Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembène.
As a child growing up in French-colonized Senegal, Gadjigo remembered the first stories he heard from his grandmother as giving him one perspective about life in an African village. But when he went to French school, his focus shifted to the stories that were told there and his point of view—his whole identity—changed dramatically.
“I went from wanting to be like the African characters in my grandmother’s stories to wanting to be a black Frenchman," he said.
Only when he discovered the work of Sembène, did he see his cultural identity reflected back at him. It was a revelation.
"His books gave me a sense of belonging and rootedness," he said. “I was moved by the inspiration of his work created in the world. I wanted to teach about Sembène to inspire more people and to understand them meaning and the power of stories. To be an artist comes with a sense of social responsibility."
Mount Holyoke College Faculty Awards for Teaching
Datla, a historian whose work focuses on modern South Asia and the history of the British Empire, was honored for her teaching. A critical theme of her work is the power that different perspectives can bring to a narrative. The diverse culture of Mount Holyoke has served as an inspiration for that work.
“The international perspectives that Mount Holyoke students bring to class provide an atmosphere conducive to in-depth classroom discussions and opportunities to re-examine cultural narratives from different perspectives,” she said.
“What’s really exciting about teaching at Mount Holyoke is that you get to see people rethinking their own stories,” she said. “We’re critically engaging that diversity together.”
Hartley echoed the sentiment that the engagement of students drives excellence in teaching. He began his teaching career at Mount Holyoke 22 years ago, and describes the “infectious joy” of discovery that teaching allows.
“I love Mount Holyoke students,” he said. “‘They’re amazing and fun to teach, and so engaged. They’re all that you’d want as a teacher.”
The feeling is mutual. Hartley is lauded by students for his wit and humor along with his ability to provoke discussions about controversial topics—and his willingness to defend unpopular opinions with academic rigor.
An anonymous donor funded the teaching awards. The scholarship awards were endowed by former trustee Janet Hickey Tague ’66 in honor of Meribeth E. Cameron, a professor of history from 1948 to 1970 who also served as academic dean, dean of faculty, and on a number of occasions, as acting president.