Dreaming beyond surroundings – meet Dr. Angela Tabiri


Angela and I are part of the AIMS Alumni family, but I specifically got to know her through a mutual friend called Fatumah Atuhaire. Here is our interview about her scientific journey:

Hello Angela, thanks for joining us today!
Thank you for having me, Winnie.

Please give us your full name:
My name is Angela Tabiri

What is your current occupation?
I am currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) Ghana. I do research in Quantum Algebra and also lecture in various programs at AIMS. I teach in the regular masters program, last year (2019) I taught the African Masters in Machine Intelligence (AMMI) program, and will this year teach the new teacher training program – Master of Mathematical Sciences for Teachers (MMST). It’s a blend of research and teaching.

I am also involved with the girls’ program – Girls in Mathematical Sciences Program (GMSP). I was part of those who started the concept, did the selection of the girls, the planning and all that. I am still doing a lot of science communication and outreaches. This is dear to me because it relates to my campaign called Femafricmaths, which means Female African Mathematicians.

How did you end up doing what you do?
I was born in the capital city of Ghana – Accra, and it’s where I have lived most of my life! I always say that I grew up in a slum with few, almost no, examples of people who have made it in life! All my early school life was in Accra; my secondary school and undergraduate at the University of Ghana where I studied Mathematics and Economics. After my undergraduate degree, I worked for 2 years as a teaching assistant at the University of Ghana under the department of Mathematics. I then joined the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) Ghana for my masters before heading to International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) for a post-graduate diploma in Mathematics.

While at ICTP, I applied for a PhD in Mathematics at the University of Glasgow in the UK. I got funding from the Schlumberger Foundation Faculty for the Future. After my 4 years stay in Glasgow, I just wanted to return home. That’s when I got this offer from AIMS to become a postdoctoral fellow.

What can you say are some obstacles you have faced as a woman in STEM?
My first challenge was financial constraints – which I know is common for most of us Africans! Growing up, finances were not so good! Some times you would want to go to certain schools but there would be that constraint. The good thing with me is that I did not ever let that stop me from reaching for what I wanted. For example, I had always dreamed of studying in the UK, even though I knew that I didn’t have the money for that! I kept pushing because I knew I had a dream that was beyond my surroundings. I dreamed of doing things no one else in my society was doing! I didn’t see any doctors around me while growing up, but that didn’t stop me!

In the midst of the financial constraints, I was always inspired by people who believed in me, especially my teachers. You know, people who always called me when they saw an opportunity, a scholarship,……. people who saw something in me! So if you ask for my inspirations, I will say; the people who believed in me and my dream to rise above my community’s status quo. These two factors push me to work as much and as hard as I can. After all this, the beautiful results inspire me even more, hahaha…..

Another challenge I can mention maybe is how tough the learning environment at ICTP was for me! You see how everyone thinks AIMS is tough? Now ICTP was worse than that, hahaha! Maybe it wasn’t that tough but the Italian education system was new to me. I wasn’t used to having both written and oral mathematics exams! And remember I was coming from an Economics background! There were some courses I hadn’t seen before. So I had a short time, different mathematics courses, language barrier,……But then I came to realise that that’s life. At every stage, there comes a different challenge that requires a different type of dedication. My PhD came with different challenges, the same with my Postdoc! One thing I know about myself is; I don’t easily give up! I just like to keep trying and trying, and eventually things work out for me.

I believe that all this hard work has come with some achievements. Can you tell us about that?
My most prestigious award so far is the scholarship from the Schlumberger Foundation Faculty for the Future. Every year very few women in STEM from developing countries are chosen to pursue their PhD’s or Postdoc’s in top universities across the world.

During my studies at AIMS, I was recognised as one of the best 2 graduating students. I was the only female with a distinction.

What do you enjoy doing outside work?
Outside my work, I do my Femafricmaths work. When I started my PhD I was thinking of female mathematicians who would be my mentors whether from a far or in person but I didn’t really find any. So on my 28th birthday party I decided to start something different. That’s when the Femafricmaths idea came to mind. For me it’s to inspire young girls about different career options available for mathematicians. I remember seeing a female head of department at my undergraduate university. This meant a lot for me because I believed that I could actually be a mathematician! I wanted to use social media to bring this awareness to African girls; if they can’t see that inspirational African female around them, at least they will find one online. Studying mathematics doesn’t always make you a university professor! I have interviewed people who are information security experts, data analysts and scientists, machine learning experts, and a whole lot of different professions. Femafricmaths is a big project, we have sub-projects for high school girls, career and mentoring sub-projects,…..yeah!

Word of encouragement for a young girl in STEM
I usually conclude my interviews with 3 words; dream, believe, take action. Dream because in our surroundings some times we don’t see any example to admire or people to mentor us. We see no role models or people with careers we admire! But once you have a dream, it goes further than your surroundings. So I would tell any girl to keep dreaming beyond their surroundings. I didn’t see any Astronaut while growing up but I am recently fascinated by that. I don’t think we have had any African go to space yet. So,…. that’s where my fascination comes from, haha!

My second word is to believe in that dream. Yes people will say all sorts of things; why are you a female doing mathematics, you are wasting your years, just throw all this away, find a husband,…..you know, all sorts of things! You should believe in your dream first. I am grateful for my family because they noticed my dream and acknowledged it with support. They believed with me and respected the path I chose. Like I mentioned before, I also had other people who believed in me; those who pointed me in that direction, wrote recommendation letters,…yeah! So yes, believe in that dream but also find people who believe in the same dream. That’s also very important.

Then lastly take action! So yes you dream and believe in your dream but you also have to take action and work towards achieving that dream. This might be the hardest part; some times you don’t see results, other times you might have to try all over again. You just have to keep going because remember you believe that your dream is achievable. There’s always something you learn from each experience.

Thank you very much Angela for sparing some time to talk to me. And for the good work you do with the girls, may you be rewarded abundantly.

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