Yewande Olubummo describes her education and career

The following is a modified version of the answers that Yewande Olubummo gave to questions about her education and career in the Interview: How Nigeria can stimulate math interest in students - U.S.-based Mathematician Yewande Olubummo conducted by Bunmi Fatove-Matory in Premium Times (19 August 2018):


I was born and raised in Ibadan, Nigeria. 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 Adegoke Olubummo (1923-1992) 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 theatre. We saw a lot of plays and performances at the University of Ibadan Arts Theatre.

We had lots of books in our house, not only mathematics 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.

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

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 do not 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 United States immediately since my father thought it was best for me to do my graduate studies in mathematics abroad. I did not 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 did not 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.

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. I felt racism 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.

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 the University of Massachusetts, 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.

After receiving my Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, I wanted to teach, so I started applying for teaching positions in universities around the country. This was in the early 1990s. I was already teaching mathematics 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 mathematics 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.

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. I'm 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 United States. 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.

I am also a member of some mathematics-related organisations. 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 programme at Spelman College, called Math Research and Mentoring Program (Math RaMP), funded by the National Science Foundation. The goal of the programme was to encourage sophomore and juniors Mathematics majors to continue on to graduate school in Mathematics. Students in the programme receive a scholarship, and in return conduct research with the mathematics faculty. These students are given the opportunity to present their work at Spelman College's Research Day and at other conferences.

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


JOC/EFR March 2019

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