INTERVIEW: How Nigeria can stimulate math interest in students – U.S.-based Mathematician

Yewande Olubummo
Yewande Olubummo

Yewande Olubummo, a professor, is the daughter of the renowned late Professor Adegoke Olubummo, the first Mathematician in Nigeria.

As the mango does not fall far from the tree, Yewande Olubummo herself is a professor of mathematics at Spelman College in Atlanta, and has been for over two decades.

She made a First Class in Mathematics at the University of Ibadan and proceeded to study in the United States for higher degrees.

She shares her insights and experiences with PREMIUM TIMES about her journey from being the daughter of an eminent mathematician to being a scholar of Mathematics in the United States.

PT:  Where were you born?

Professor Olubummo:  I was born and raised in Ibadan.

I had a nice and pleasant upbringing.  I am the oldest of three children. For the first ten years of my life, we lived on the campus of the University of Ibadan where my father was a professor of mathematics. My father was from Ekiti and my mother was from Calabar.

I remember many interesting activities as a child: playing with other children of faculty members, swimming, birthday parties, and so on. My father loved books, music, and the theater. We saw a lot of plays and performances at the U.I. Arts Theater.

We had lots of books in our house, not only math books. I was always reading as a child and got books as birthday presents. My father loved classical music and there was always music in our house. My father was a big influence on me and I have very pleasant memories of that period of my life. At the age of 10, we moved out of the university campus to Bodija.

When I was 19, my mother passed away, and this left a big void in my life.

PT: What elementary and high schools did you attend?

Professor Olubummo:  I attended the University of Ibadan Staff School for my elementary education, and the International School, Ibadan for my high school.

 

PT:  Where did you go after International School?

Professor Olubummo:  I attended the University of Ibadan to study mathematics. In fact, my father taught me some courses. I lived at home during my undergraduate years because my father insisted on it. I wanted to live on campus, but looking back, I’m grateful for my father’s decision.

I don’t think I was mature enough to live by myself on campus during those years. I graduated in 1980 and did my national youth service in Keffi, Plateau State.

As a Youth Corper, I taught mathematics at a high school. After my national service, I left for the U.S. immediately.

PT: Why?

Professor Olubummo:  My father thought it was best for me to do my graduate studies in mathematics abroad. I didn’t know much about graduate school and what was required, but my father encouraged me to go. I applied and got accepted to several schools including Oxford and Yale Universities.

Oxford did not give any financial assistance but Yale did, so I went to Yale. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do but I’ve always wanted to teach. I didn’t see many female professors as an undergraduate in mathematics, and had just one female professor. It has been a passion of mine to encourage women to go into mathematics.

PT: What was your experience?

Professor Olubummo: I didn’t have a good experience at Yale. I didn’t know what was expected and I didn’t have any support. It was a lonely and isolating experience and I didn’t do well in my doctoral oral exams.

I was 21, a naïve 21, and I was the only black person in my department. To stave off loneliness, I became active in the Nigerian community at Yale and New Haven. I went to parties and had a busy social life.

I ended up getting my Master’s degree in mathematics from Yale. It so happened that an African-American professor was visiting Yale from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst at the time. He took an interest in me and invited me to apply to UMass Amherst.

I did, and was accepted. I spent the next 8 years getting my Ph.D. there.  My father was disappointed I did not complete the Ph.D. program at Yale, but I felt I was lucky to find someone who took an interest in me and encouraged me not to give up.

PTCould you say something about how you think Math learning could be improved in Nigeria?

Professor Olubummo: A lot of people find math difficult because they didn’t have good teachers. I was lucky my father was a mathematician who cultivated the love of math in me.  He had a passion for it and taught it well.

We need good and effective teachers in our elementary and high schools, and also in our higher institutions who can teach math well.  The anxiety about math is not just in Nigeria, it is here in the U.S. too.

Maybe summer camps and fun activities around Math can improve the attitude and disposition of children for math. These will require government funding in Nigeria, but it can be done. Such programmes will improve skills and confidence in math.

PT:  Many people don’t know what to do with Math degrees.

Professor Olubummo: There are so many things people can do with Math. Mathematicians can go on to careers in Engineering, Computer Science, Data Science, Insurance (Actuarial Science), Biological Sciences, and so on.

Many employers in many areas are looking for mathematicians because they have critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Math is highly marketable in different areas.

PT:  What did you do after Amherst?

Professor Olubummo:  I wanted to teach, so I started applying for teaching positions in universities around the country.  This was in the early ‘90s.  I was already teaching math full time at Smith College while writing my dissertation.

The job market in the U.S. was tough and the situation in Nigeria was not good either. I was lucky to get a couple of offers. I got an offer from Spelman College in Atlanta. An African-American mathematician from Spelman was visiting Smith to evaluate their math department at the time. Her name is Sylvia Bozeman.

She encouraged me to apply to Spelman. It’s because of her that I’m at Spelman today. She has been my colleague and mentor for over two decades. She and the other African-American professor who was visiting Yale, Professor Donald St. Mary, were critical to my professional advancement. They are both eminent black Mathematicians in the United States.

PT:  How long have you been at Spelman College?  And could you tell us about the College?

Professor Olubummo:  I have been at Spelman since 1991. Spelman College is a four-year Liberal Arts College for African-American women located in Atlanta, Georgia.  It has a population of approximately 2100 students.

PT: You are also a member of some math-related organisations.

Professor Olubummo:  Yes. I am involved in organizations that help encourage minority students to pursue graduate studies in the mathematical sciences. One is the National Alliance for Doctoral Studies in the Mathematical Sciences, a community of faculty and students working to increase the number of people from underrepresented groups with doctoral degrees in mathematics.

The National Alliance holds the Field of Dreams Conference every year. I’m a faculty mentor in the organisation and I nominate students for this conference because of the opportunities and networking it provides them.

Nominated students also have the opportunity of being paired with a faculty member to help them with the graduate school application process.

I was also a co-director for three and a half years of a program at Spelman College, called Math Research and Mentoring Program (Math RaMP), funded by the National Science Foundation. The goal of the program was to encourage sophomore and juniors Math majors to continue on to graduate school in Math.

Students in the program receive a scholarship, and in return conduct research with math faculty.  These students are given the opportunity to present their work at Spelman College’s Research Day and at other conferences.

PT:  What challenges do you face as a Math professor?

Professor Olubummo: Funding. Being able to get funding for what one wants to do. For example, we couldn’t sustain the Math RaMP program as we would have liked.  There are lots of ideas of programs to help students, but the funding is not always there.

PT:  What is your experience as a black female immigrant Mathematics professor?

Professor Olubummo:  I’ve had a very positive and rewarding experience at Spelman. My students see me as a role model, which is very fulfilling. I have great colleagues and as I said earlier, I owe my presence here to my colleague and mentor, Professor Sylvia Bozeman.

Outside of Spelman, I feel treated at times as if I don’t belong, because of the colour of my skin and gender.  I feel not as valued as a part of the profession.

PT:   Are you talking about racism?

Professor Olubummo:  Yes. I felt it more as a student at Yale.  It was not a positive experience. I didn’t feel I belonged and I think the professors there gave more time and attention to the white students.

PTSome people think African immigrant and African-American professionals have conflicts. Your experience is different.

Professor Olubummo: Yes. As I said earlier, two African-American mathematicians were instrumental in my career advancement here. I am forever grateful to them. If not for them, I won’t be here today. They mentored and encouraged me.

I’m also lucky to be at Spelman and teaching young black women. So many of my students are excelling in their chosen careers and I am very proud of them.  Spelman has some of the best American minds. It is worth noting that the National Association of Mathematicians is an organisation of black mathematicians in the US.

My colleague and mentor, Professor Bozeman is an active member. The organisation is made up of African and African-American mathematicians who work to promote the mathematical development of underrepresented minorities.

PT:  What do you do for fun?

Professor Olubummo: I love to read. I love reading the younger African writers such as Teju Cole and Chimamanda Adichie.

PT:  You just got back from Nigeria.  What did you go for?

Professor Olubummo: I went back to Nigeria for two months after sixteen years of being away. I got some funding from the Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship Program to develop and teach a graduate mathematics course at Kwara State University in Ilorin.

It was a gratifying experience because I had the opportunity to do something I have always wanted to do – teach in Nigeria.  I had seven students in my class, two women and five men. I felt I was giving back to Nigeria in a small way at the university there.

PT: What course did you teach?

Professor Olubummo: I taught a course called Banach Algebras in an area of Math called Functional Analysis.  Functional analysis involves the theory of mathematical functions. It’s an area of pure Math, and is more theoretical, unlike Applied Math. They don’t have enough expertise in the mathematics department at Kwara State University, so I was able to help.

PT:  Given the great anxiety around learning Math, how do you think parents could help their children with Math?

Professor Olubummo: Parents should try not to communicate their own anxiety to their children around math education.  They should be actively involved and encourage their children to enjoy Math. There is a lot of information on the internet now on how a parent, even one who did poorly in Math as a student, can help his or her children.

Apart from Math activities at home, children should be encouraged to participate in activities such as math fairs and competitions. Girls, especially, should be given attention. Parents can provide information to their children about the many professions they could enter as mathematicians. Math should be made fun, and not something to be dreaded.

Parental attitude and encouragement matter a lot in children’s perception and performance in Math.

PT:  Thank you.


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