Julie and I are part of the AIMS Alumni family and share many mutual friends from different paths of life. I however got to speak to her specifically through a mutual friend called Maurine Songa. Here is our interview about her STEM story:
Hello Julie, it is nice to finally speak with you. Thank you very much for sparing time for me.
Hi Winnie, I am happy to be here. Thank you for starting this initiative; it was much needed especially in Africa. I have been hearing about you but we had never met. It’s good to finally talk to you. Maurine has always encouraged me to write a book about my journey but, writing is one of my weaknesses – she knows that, haha. So, this is a good start to sharing my journey with the world in an inspirational way.
Oh yes, I have also heard about you since 2013! It is a pleasure to finally have time to talk to you.
Kindly introduce yourself to our audience
I am called Juliet Nakakawa Nsumba – Nsumba is my husband’s name – from Uganda. I am a Doctor by PhD but prefer being addressed by my name; no titles. I am a lecturer in the Department of Mathematics, College of Natural Sciences at Makerere University, Uganda. I am also doing some research with the Center for Computational Biology.
How did you become a Lecturer in Mathematics?
I was born in a humble family; I am the 3rd born in a family of 5 children. My parents separated when I was in Primary 5, and my mother sought full custody for all 5 of us. While growing up, life was such a struggle! We lacked many things, including education, but I luckily got sponsorship through Compassion International. They paid half of my education fees, which relieved my mother a bit. I was the only one in my family getting full education. I studied at Lugazi West Primary School in Buikwe, and graduated from primary school with a second grade, with Mathematics as my worst done subject. Unlike other people, for me Mathematics was not easy at the beginning but I loved it; I enjoyed the dynamics in it and how it was being done.
I later joined Lugazi Community Comprehensive School for my O’level. This is when I started enjoying Mathematics and other science related subjects; I found them so much involving. I realised I would have felt the same in primary if I had received proper training. In my Senior One, we had a very tough Mathematics teacher, but I liked how strict he was. He left after a year and we got another teacher with a completely different character; he was soft and cared for his students. The first test I ever did with the new teacher wasn’t surprising to me; I got 20% but had seen it coming. The second test came back with 40% and the third with 60%. This impressed my teacher a lot and he started following up on me. My love for the subject grew more and more to a point of never getting below 80% in all my Mathematics examinations.
I finished my O’level with a Distinction in Mathematics, despite doing the examinations while sick. Heading to A’level was another hustle in financial terms. My mother’s friend suggested that maybe I join a nursing school since I was good at sciences. For some reason, my mother and I didn’t really buy this idea and ended up enrolling me for A’level at Bishop Senior in Mukono. This meant me commuting every day from Lugazi to Mukono. Some days were good with available transport money for me, other days were not! Until Senior Six when the organisation that was sponsoring me decided to award me a full scholarship and take me to boarding school. I finished, still not with the best grades but joined Makerere University under the sponsorship of the Government of Uganda.
God was good, I got another scholarship called the Leadership Development Program, still through the same organisation – Compassion. I then had enough money to sustain myself at campus. I did a bachelors degree in Education and majored in Mathematics. I graduated with a second class upper.
God has placed people in my life at all stages! A friend of mine brought the idea of applying to the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) in South Africa, which we did and all 4 of us got admission on full scholarships. God was still good; I got another scholarship at SACEMA in South Africa again, for a masters program in Biomathematics. By the end of my masters, I rationally decided to come back home. Most people thought I would stay there and start my PhD but I hadn’t put in enough effort in applying for PhD’s. I think because I was a bit tired and needed some rest.
Upon reaching home, there was no resting at all because I immediately got a job in Makerere University to work as an Assistant Lecturer. Around that same time, a group of people was looking for someone to do a PhD on Banana Bacterial Welt. They dropped papers in the Head of Department’s office – Professor Kasozi – who asked me if I was interested. Good enough Professor Mugisha was already willing to supervise, so I really didn’t struggle – I am telling you, I had stopped struggling in my life, haha! That’s how I got a scholarship again for my PhD.
Around 2013 I started my PhD journey. I can say I worked hard but it wasn’t really working that hard; since I decided to start pursuing Mathematics, there are few times I felt like I was struggling to accomplish anything school related. I can’t say that I didn’t sleep or missed this and that because of the PhD, no! God was still good to me, I got married along the way and had a baby during my PhD journey. Normally people say no one in Makerere ever finishes their PhD’s in time, but I did with all my personal accomplishments.
I defended my PhD in September 2018 and graduated in January 2019. That has been my journey and I am now a full time Lecturer in the Department of Mathematics. I don’t think I can take the credit but I am very grateful to the people around me, especially my mum, my siblings, my husband and my colleagues. They have given me all the support I have needed along the journey and have made it somehow easier for me.
People have been very supportive, but can you point out moments when things got tough for you?
I personally choose to focus on the positive part of everything. I remember during my A’level, we had a very good Mathematics teacher who used to tell us that if we were in the science class, we were not girls. According to his understanding, we were supposed to be boys, can you imagine! His comments either didn’t sink or I didn’t take him serious because I never felt like I wasn’t meant to be in that class.
Apart from the financial challenges while growing up, I have not had tough challenges career-wise. My supervisors were very supportive but I started my PhD journey with a mindset of getting my goals irrespective of whether my supervisors were involved or not. There are just normal struggles with publications and all that but nothing really out of this world.
You mentioned being tired after your masters and at other points in life, what kept you going and aiming for more?
Definitely God being on my side!
Second I had focus, for example, the time I felt really tired after my masters, I was in a relationship with my now husband. I credit him so much for a lot of things in my life that happened after my masters degree. When you take on this journey as a female scientist, you need a lot of support, especially from your life partner. My husband (boyfriend then) used to encourage me to go for my dreams. He believed in me and made sure I did everything right even when I didn’t want to. The other person was Professor Mugisha – my PhD supervisor – he also encouraged my efforts during the application process and all through my journey. He did a great job helping me to finish on time. I have been lucky to have supportive people in my life.
Another thing that inspires me is the self-belief that I can make it, even when I don’t know how to. I haven’t looked at my weaknesses or how society views the field, but I have instead sieved comments and moved forward. I push negative comments aside and refer to them after reaching my destiny.
Please tell us about your achievements and awards
One of them is the day I received my PhD; it was a very exciting moment when I finished my defence.
Also, the different scholarships I have been getting; I can never take those for granted. I know many children out there need these opportunities but haven’t gotten the chances. Likewise, many have been given the opportunities but have taken them for granted. I am very grateful for the Compassion program; honestly if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have been here. So, my achievement here is getting the scholarships and being able to make the best out of them.
What do you enjoy doing that’s not related to Mathematics and Research?
Haha…..wow! I enjoy chatting with friends. Not necessarily going out with them but having moments of happiness with them. I also love looking out for my friends; I am a social-person. I really love being around my people and taking care of them.
I also enjoy watching soccer, haha. I support Manchester United, so I am looking forward to Saturday when Euro starts.
I also love cooking, shopping, and watching movies. Cooking is my new passion that I am still developing.
What quote resonates with you most?
I don’t have a specific one, maybe for myself. I always tell myself that “if others have done it, you can do it better” ~ Juliet Nakakawa.
I also love this one; “your past should not define your future” ~ Jillian Michaels. I believe that anyone’s past should be a lesson for them to learn from.
Lastly, “there’s no magic to achievements; it’s really about hard work, choices and persistence” ~ Michelle Obama.
What word of encouragement about STEM would you tell young Julie?
To any young girl struggling to fit into STEM; do not look at your weakness. This is something I always tell my mentees – I am also a mentor with MasterCard Foundation and other programs. Things you can’t change shouldn’t determine who you are or who you are going to be. If you fall once or are faced with impostor syndrome, always forget about your failures and focus on your bright moments. Always work on things that you can change; things that are within your means.
Don’t listen to naysayers, if possible cut them out of your life. Only use them as points of reference for your success; they once said you couldn’t, now is the time for them to see your accomplishments.
STEM is not for the lazy or weak! As a woman, you have to stand up for who you are and what you believe in. You have to know that if other people have done it, you can also do it.
Thank you very much Julie for speaking with me. I admire your calmness amidst all that you have been able to achieve. It’s always a learning process for me. Thank you once again.