Even When Crying, Look For Help – Doreen Mbabazi Ssebuliba


Doreen 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 Juliet Nakakawa. Here is her STEM story:

Hi Doreen, thank you for accepting to be part of this cause. I am honoured to host you today.
Hi Winnie, thanks for the invite. I have gone through some stories and they are really inspiring. I am happy to be here too.

Kindly introduce yourself please
I am Doreen Mbabazi Ssebuliba – Ssebuliba is my husband’s name. I have a PhD in Mathematics with a specialty in epidemiological modelling. Currently I am a lecturer in the department of Mathematics at Kyambogo University in Uganda. I am also part of the research team at Center for Computational Biology. Lastly, I am a member of Ugandan Women in Mathematics.

Did you always envision yourself as a Mathematician while growing up? Tell us about your childhood

I come from a humble background, as the first child in a family of 4 children. As far as I can remember, I have always been good in my studies because I used to top my class all through primary school. Everytime I brought my report card home, my mother would carry me on her back. She is a primary school teacher for Mathematics and Science, so she was a big inspiration to me in the science world.

I finished primary school and joined secondary but unfortunately lost my father in the first term of Senior One. This was a trying moment because I started wondering where my school fees would come from. That entire year was hard with a lot of financial struggles but I luckily got sponsorship from Jinja Diocese, who paid my fees until I finished my secondary school.

I had always admired doctors and dreamed of wearing the white coat and taking care of people. Unfortunately when my Senior Six results were released, I hadn’t performed well enough to be admitted into the medicine program under the sponsorship of the Government of Uganda. I was instead sent to the bachelor of science in Botany, Zoology, and Chemistry program. Before starting school, a close family friend advised me to do Mathematics and Physics and told me that with Mathematics, only the sky can be the limit. I followed his advice, changed the courses and have never regretted it to date.

When school started, I realised that every time we were heading into some Physics lecture room, there were second year students heading out of the same lecture room and their lecturer was female. I was so impressed because I couldn’t believe that a woman would be teaching Mathematics at university level! This had a very big impression on me. I had to ask about her and was told that her name was (still is, haha) Dr. Rebecca Nsubuga. When I heard the title “Dr” I was moved a lot! From that day I swore that I would become a doctor some day, specifically in Mathematics – whatever it took.

During my second year, I became the class coordinator with an aim of interacting with Dr. Nsubuga more. She directly and indirectly encouraged me to work hard, which I did and my performance started getting noticed by other lecturers. One day Dr. Kitayimbwa called me and other 2 students who were good and asked us to apply to the African Institute in Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) in South Africa. All of us were lucky to receive the scholarship and proceeded to get our masters degrees after the postgraduate diploma. I also got my PhD, all from Stellenbosch University in South Africa and fully sponsored.

I came back home and started working as a lecturer and have been doing that until now.

Apart from the financial constraints, what other challenges have you faced as a woman in STEM?
One of the things that used to amuse me was this constant comment of, “I thought Mathematics and sciences were for ugly girls! How come you are doing that too?”. That was a very big offensive bias! It was challenging for me to have to prove people wrong! Some actually said that maybe I just sleep around with my lecturers to get good marks! I couldn’t explain to them that my mother had mentored me into sciences since childhood and I actually am intelligent enough to prosper in this field.

Your mother is definitely a big source of inspiration. Is there anything else that keeps you moving?
The fact that I set my goals keeps me moving. An example is `for me to be called doctor some day’; that was my goal and I did everything it took to achieve that.

I also thank people in the academic discussion groups I always joined. I never want to fail, so instead of struggling on my own, I always believe in seeking help. So, yes, those people helped me not to give up.

Please tell us about your prestigious moments, achievements and awards
The biggest achievement is me receiving my long term goal of becoming a doctor in Mathematics. My awards are the various scholarships I have received since Senior Two; Jinja Diocese scholarship, AIMS scholarship, and SACEMA scholarships for masters and PhD.

If you are not teaching or researching, what do you enjoy doing?
I am a happy married woman with 5 children who I love taking care of and spending quality time with. I also enjoy crocheting and tailoring. I read inspirational books and do some gardening. I am also a fan of taking walks and window shopping; I like seeing nice things, haha.

What quote resonates with you?
The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step” ~ Chinese Proverb. Although on that I always add, “with good preparation”. If you are ever going to do something, you need to take the first step.

Another one is just a word that goes around; it’s not a quote as such but I like it. “Your happiness is your personal responsibility. Don’t expect anyone to make you happy”.

How would you encourage a young girl who is just starting their STEM journey?
I would like to encourage them to do all it takes to achieve their dreams. In doing this, they have to set specific goals; both short term and long term. Otherwise if you don’t set anything, you would never do anything. These goals also have to have a time frame.

There’s something I usually tell my children that, even when crying, look for help. Even when things are very hard, look for someone to help you, not just sitting around to dwell in your inability to achieve something.

Get out of your comfort zone and face your fears. Travel the road less travelled if it leads you to your desired destination. Always push all kinds of negativity out of your life, this is can be done through mentors who speak life into you; people who support you.

Thank you very much, Doreen! It’s been a wonderful session. Thank you for being very warm while speaking with me. I greatly enjoyed our time and look forward to more interactions.

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