From Lagos to Glasgow – Dr. Sofiat Olaosebikan

 

Sofiat and I met as tutors at AIMS in Ghana. She was the first woman whose computer skills I admired so much. Here is our interview about her STEM journey:

Hi Sofiat, welcome to Words That Count. How are you?
Hi Winnie, thank you for inviting me. I am not fine! I know the default answer would be “fine”, but I am not! I have so much to do, I am struggling with some of them, and I am working hard to survive. Ha ha ha.. I am learning to stop saying “fine” when I am not.

Oh I can imagine! Sorry about that, I hope things get better and lighter soon. I will try to make this as short as possible, so that you have some time to do other things.
Haha, okay, thank you.

What is your full name?
My name is Sofiat Olaosebikan.

What do you do currently?
I am currently a Lecturer in Algorithms and Complexity, based at the School of Computing Science, University of Glasgow. My job involves a lot of stuff; carrying out high-quality research (publications, applying for grants, etc.), teaching, student advising, and supervision of undergraduate and masters students.

Tell us about your history; how has this journey been for you?
I was born and raised in Lagos state – Nigeria, as the first child in a family of 5 children; I have 3 sisters and 1 brother. I remember I used to be really terrible at Mathematics, for the first half of my secondary school, I used to fail Mathematics a lot! I didn’t have a private tutor or anything like that! I just went through ordinary school like anyone else. Half-way through my secondary school, the interest just kicked in. I call it a gift from God because that’s the only explanation I have. I didn’t become very good at Mathematics because of how the teacher taught me then, or as a result of a career activity I attended, no! It just happened.

I remember I bought this Engineering Mathematics book by K. A. Stroud and started studying it by myself. I became the queen of Mathematics in my secondary school, solving questions that were beyond my level, figuring things out, and challenging teachers, haha. So, it was just an interest that kicked in half-way through my secondary school days.

I concluded my secondary school studies in 2005, and the next step was to go to the university. In Nigeria, there are usually more students than the universities can accommodate. So we have to write a competitive unified matriculation examination commonly known as JAMB. It took me 3 trials before I was finally accepted into a university. While I was waiting to get into the university, my father bought me a desktop computer. That was when my passion for computing was ignited. The computer was one of those gigantic box-like things, not the slick ones we have now, haha. I played around with the computer; paint, games, solitaire, name it. My father decided to send me to a computer school, which was where I learned Microsoft packages and adobe for like 6 months. I didn’t do a lot apart from typing and designing, but I loved it. I still enjoyed my Mathematics because I remember tutoring my friends who had examinations to write.

Finally in 2008, I got admission into the University of Ibadan to study Mathematics. In all my attempts to get an admission, I wanted to study Computer Science, but because I had failed to get in, I opted for Mathematics. Again, there was nobody helping me with these decisions, there was no career advice, no mentor. It was just me and God, plus my father – with the little he knew about education.

When I started at the university, my father bought me a laptop which re-ignited my passion for computing. You will notice I keep saying “my father” a lot. He has been very instrumental in my journey. There is no way I would talk about my academic journey without mentioning him. He is at the center of everything. Back then, I was just typing projects for people in their final year and making money with the laptop. I didn’t know much about using it for anything else. I attempted to take courses from the Computing Science department but I didn’t like the way things were taught there and how students were being threatened about the complexity of those courses.

My interest in Mathematics was steady and that of Computing Science kept growing. In 2009, there was a massive strike in Nigeria for 100 days and we all had to go home. I had already made friends with people from computing. We got together to learn different things and I chose web designing; HTML, CSC, Adobe Fireworks, Dream weaver,…. I am glad that strike happened, because my decisions at the time strengthened my interest in computing. Again, my father paid for the web design course!

At the end of my undergraduate degree, I graduated with a first class in Mathematics. And it was time to do my masters, but for some reason, all my colleagues unanimously agreed that us doing our masters degrees outside Nigeria was the best thing for our future. We believed that we would be shaped into constructive Mathematicians better from outside Nigeria. I applied to the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) in Ghana, and I got in. Fully-funded, free boarding and meals, they were even paying me a stipend to study! Haha. For those that don’t know about AIMS, you can find more details here.

With the AIMS set-up, I was introduced to Python programming. I immediately got hooked because I already enjoyed these computing things. I had just not gotten opportunities to learn them and people to guide me through. I think I slept in the computer lab at AIMS-Ghana a couple of times. It was really fascinating the way Dr. Carl Pearson taught us how to use computers to solve manually exhausting problems. For example, if we want to find the 10,000th prime number; we know what prime numbers are and we can list them but reaching the 10,000th is going to be a strenuous task. Now this is something a computer can efficiently generate for you once you command it using the language it understands, which is programming.

I was also introduced to another course called Graph Theory by Prof. Nancy Ann Neudauer from Pacific University, Oregon USA. I had never heard of Graph Theory before but it turned out to be interesting to me too. I did my masters thesis with Nancy and wrote a library which I published on Python Package Index. It was something many researchers found useful because of the many times it was downloaded. This pushed me to asking the question – what else can I do? That is how my journey for a PhD program started. I wanted to explore my passion for problem solving and programming.

I got countless rejections during my PhD application process because I had no research experience and no publications, apart from my Python package and certificates from Cousera. Luckily, I was called back to AIMS as a Python teaching assistant after my graduation. That’s when I met Winnie, haha. Also, Prof. Ulrich Kraehmer (previously from the School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Glasgow), who had taught me when I was a student at AIMS, came to visit AIMS again when I was a tutor. We had a chat about what I wanted to do. After talking about what I did for my masters thesis, he picked the word matchings and mentioned his friend in Glasgow who does the same thing – Prof. David Manlove. I went on David’s website, literally stalked his web page and went through the amazing work he is doing with graph algorithms, with lots of practical applications like designing the Kidney Exchange algorithm for the National Health Service (NHS). I am strongly motivated by practical applications and I just wanted to get involved with this research.

I got in touch with David, had an interview, applied to the university and then a PhD scholarship, which I didn’t expect I would get because of the competition. Given my history of rejections, this was another long shot! Luckily, I got the admission and scholarship.

I moved to Glasgow in 2016 and started my PhD with the College of Science and Engineering Scholarship. Finally being in an environment I had been yearning for, to learn everything I wanted to learn, impostor syndrome instead kicked in, making me think that I didn’t deserve to be there! There was so much I didn’t know and kept feeling like I was going to be found out and sent back to Nigeria. But the support from my supervisor was amazing! Slowly I started seeing the successes; I published my first paper, attended conferences, gave talks, won awards! All these things kept motivating me and assuring me that I knew what I was doing.

I finally finished my PhD with many sessions of tears and stories that I can’t get into right now, haha. I submitted my thesis March 2020 while on lockdown, got my lectureship offer letter in May 2020, defended my thesis in July 2020 and started my lectureship role in August 2020. The year 2020 was a big and transformational year for me, irrespective of the pandemic. So far, the journey has been filled with a lot of challenges, but there have been exciting times too.

Wow! Thank you Sofiat. This has been a long journey but I am happy you always find a way to lift yourself up.

I am sure we have covered the challenges you have faced and your sources of inspiration too. Please tell us about your prestigious awards and achievements
I have received numerous scholarships and awards, many of which you will find on my website. However, my most prestigious achievement is being able to reach out to young scientists in Africa, to empower them with computer programming skills and to support them via the Programming Workshop for Scientists in Africa (PWSAfrica) initiative.

I started PWSAfrica in 2018 to tackle the skills gap affecting many students in Africa from the computing perspective. With the support of my amazing team and the generous funding from our sponsors, we have successfully ran two programming workshops in Nigeria and Rwanda, training over 200 participants. I am very enthusiastic about PWSAfrica and I have had a very rewarding experience leading the past workshops. As I look forward to future workshops, I am excited about the opportunity it presents: to make a significant impact in the lives of others. In recognition of the significance of this initiative, I was named a Future World Changer by the University of Glasgow.

What do you enjoy doing outside work?
Sports! I enjoy weightlifting, boxing, high-intensity training and pilates. I am an active member of the University of Glasgow gym. However, since the global pandemic started, I have resorted to walking! I walked half a million steps in June 2020 (roughly 13km daily in 18,000 steps). Since I started my new job in August 2020, I have settled for an average of 10,000 daily steps.

What piece of advice would you give to a young girl struggling to fit into STEM?
For me, it was all about identifying my passion and mixing with the right crowd. The following are some tips you might find useful.

  • Identify your passion: what subject/topic/question keeps you awake at night?
  • Talk to people. Ramble. Talk more until you are fully aware of your identity and the key skills you want to spend the rest of your life developing/harnessing
  • Put words down on paper. Write. Write. Write. It can be private, you don’t have to share it.
  • Go out and seek people who are successful in these areas that you have identified. Stalk them. Be bold. Be fearless. Learn from them and their experiences. Trust me, people love to help other people succeed.
  • Seek challenges. Expand your comfort zone. If it doesn’t stretch you, it’s probably not worth it.
  • Surround yourself with people (physically and socially) that will bring out the greatness in you.
  • You have to put in the work. Invest in yourself! Work Hard! Persevere!
  • Don’t be afraid of failing, for not trying at all is failure. After all, when something does not work out your way, it is probably God’s way of telling you it’s not the best option for you.
  • Above all, be kind to yourself!

Thank you Sofiat for sparing some time out of your very busy schedule to speak with me. I greatly appreciate the honour to write your story. I wish you the best with all that’s not yet working out, may things get better soon. Thank you once again.

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