I love Mathematics – Dr. Justine Nasejje

 

Justine and I are part of the AIMS Alumni family and are old students of Makerere University. I however got to know her when I joined the University of KwaZulu Natal. Here is our interview about her scientific journey:

Thank you for joining us, Justine!
You are welcome!

Can we know your full name please?
My name is Justine Nasejje. I hope that’s sufficient, haha… I prefer no tittles because I feel like they keep people distant from others. I only use my title in a professional sphere. Other than that, my name should be okay.

What do you currently do, Justine?
I am a Statistician by profession but to go into detail, I was initially trained in Mathematical Sciences. I later realised that Mathematics was a tool I could use in any field in the science world. So during my honours, I decided to use my Mathematical tools in Statistics. I specialise in Biostatistics, Applied Probability, Machine Learning, and Mathematical Modelling.

Where do you work at the moment?
I am currently with the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, under the School of Statistics and Actuarial Sciences.

What are some of your duties? What does a normal day look like for you at work?
The lock-down has been very different, hahaha…… but I will give the overview. I lecture – been doing this for the past 2 years – 3rd and 4th year students. I am also required to do research, so I spend part of my time preparing research articles and the other time preparing lecture notes for my students. I also supervise honours and masters students. I am yet to have a PhD student.

Of course with teaching comes marking and setting exams – which is a tense period for us! Marking is done twice a year. It is tense but we actually relax a little bit then because there is less worry about lecture content to give to students every day. Our department is more strict because they admit the “cream of the country”. So we are required to do more, but yeah, basically that’s it at work.

Please tell us a little bit about your childhood
Wow!, hahaha….. I am sorry for laughing but when I look back I actually get emotional. Not because I feel so bad about the journey but because it made me who I am. I don’t think I would have gotten a better training ground.

I was born to a teenage mother – I just found out that my father was a teenager too, hahaha….. Being born in such an environment exposed me to a lot! My parents had no idea what they were doing! I had to be left behind by my mother because she couldn’t afford raising me. My paternal grandmother rejected me from the very first day because in her mind, her son was too young to father someone. She believed that my mother had gotten pregnant by someone else, not her son! One person I thank most from my paternal side is my grandfather – he didn’t care whether I was his legitimate grandchild or not! He was very caring and loving every single day. The first 10 years of my life were rocky but my grandfather made it easier for me to live through them. He unfortunately died when I was 10.

At 14 years of age, my grandmother sat me down and told me to ask my mother who my true father was. Remember I was staying with my paternal family! The immediate person to ask about such information was my step-mother, since I wasn’t close to my biological mother. I unfortunately didn’t get any helpful answer from my step-mother. The next thing I knew, I was supposed to leave my grandmother’s house for obvious reasons – I didn’t belong there. The only place I could think of running to was my father’s house but upon arrival, my step-mother said I couldn’t stay there because the house was too small for all of us. She advised me to go back to my grandmother. It was a very awkward moment! What made it worse was my father’s silence in all this!

Yes it was an awkward year but that’s when my mother realised she had to wake up and do something for, and about me. She came for me, negotiated a deal with a school near her home and got me in boarding school. That was the beginning of my growth. I would say it was a psychological thing because I experienced tremendous growth after being away from all negative saying people. That boarding school was my refuge. I don’t blame the people who treated me that way because we can never tell; maybe what they were saying held some water! However, it doesn’t take away the fact that it was an injustice to a child!

I completed my O’ level with flying colors and went to stay with my mother after. With the help of my maternal Uncle, Rev. Nathanael Mutyaba, and my mother’s friends I managed to get fees for my A’ level. God blessed me with the knowledge and I was able to pass my A’ levels convincingly that I was sponsored by the Government of Uganda for my undergraduate studies at one of the best universities in the country – Makerere University. I did a bachelor’s degree in Mathematics and Economics. Most girls in my class chose to major in Economics but my love for Mathematics made me do otherwise. This meant that my discussion group had a higher percentage of males than females. It was weird for many people, haha…. because my female friends didn’t clearly understand why I would choose to go for Mathematics as a major. My honest answer was and will always be – I love Mathematics!

How has been your walk in this STEM field?
I remember my first day in a Mathematics class, this very tall male lecturer told us that we had only covered 10% of all the Mathematics in the world. This stirred something inside me instead! I wanted to know what was in the 90%. My discussion group had dedicated members who would bring their passion straight from the beginning of the semester, and other people who would join in towards examination time. I remember our code name was “source”, haha…..we knew everything related to the Mathematics syllabus.

I have had many encounters with my male colleagues in this field of STEM, some positive and others negative, just like all life experiences. There was this one time I got a 50% mark in one of the test we did. Oh my God, I cried like never before, hahaha…. But one of the guys called me with that male tough love and it worked wonders. I got my determination back and did better in the examinations after that.

There were different hardships during my undergraduate studies – given my family background – but mainly finance related. Being a government sponsored student, I had the privilege of having a meal at the halls of residence. That was my ONLY meal most of the days, since I couldn’t afford anything else. I had a family friend in a market close to the university who used to come through for me during very hard times. But this one time I was very hungry, walked my hunger to her place, only to find her gone, haha…. Things were seriously tight! And as you know, for a girl, life was offering different enticing opportunities to give me a better living but the phobia I had while growing up helped me reject every offer. I grew up in an environment where prostitution and its consequences were real! I knew how rosy things look at the beginning and how terrible they turn with time. And also knowing God kept me going and believing that life wouldn’t be that way forever. I wasn’t a regular at church but God had given me a good support system there. People like Savannah Nuwamanya did a great job in keeping me courageous.

After Makerere, I was determined to learn the other 90% that was mentioned during my first class. I had talked to a lecturer called Dr. Nsubuga about my desires for further studies. The condition was that if I passed my final examinations, he would let me know early enough to allow me apply for graduate studies. He informed me about the good results when they were out, and also gave me the link to the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) and the World Academy of Science. I applied for both and was accepted into AIMS. That’s how I left Uganda and ended up in South Africa. I went through the intense AIMS program for 10 months and added a lot to my 10% from Makerere. I went to the University of KwaZulu Natal, still in South Africa, for my second masters after AIMS.

At this point, I would like to encourage all young girls out there not to fear reaching out to people. Many are willing to help if you let them know that you need their help! Send that email, attend that workshop, go for that conference, have no fear in asking! I am saying all this because my masters supervisor was through reaching out!

After my masters, I applied for a PhD still at the University of KwaZulu Natal. The PhD journey also had its challenges, haha….. I had to make very tough decisions, had to let go of certain things that I thought mattered to me, at some point I even had to go home and rethink my decision to pursue a PhD! Luckily I had a very understanding supervisor. He allowed me to take some time off and let him know if I still wanted to continue with the PhD. I am also grateful for the support I received from a few individuals (whose names I have not mentioned here) that I shared my troubles with during this time of indecision, it was very helpful. I later got a very good funding source – DAAD – which connected me to a professor from Germany. We unfortunately didn’t have such a good relationship, I had to drop him and find someone else. Surprisingly, he turned out to be the most positive person about my final PhD dissertation! This taught me a lot about life and the challenges we face. It’s never good to burn bridges!

Always being a woman of action, I was already applying for the next opportunity after my PhD and planning on starting a family with my husband. With God on my side, I got my current lecturer position when I was 6 months pregnant with our twins. Things have been kind of tough in a way that I am adjusting to a new environment, work, being a new mother, different country other than home. There are times I have battled impostor syndrome, thought of taking leave off everything, but there’s always someone holding my hand through things. I have learned to shield the negative energy out of my system – my girls need me, it’s no longer about me alone!

I realise I haven’t talked about rejections; oh I have lots of those, terrible ones where you are made to believe that you don’t know anything! For example, one of my supervisors once told me that I didn’t know anything! To my surprise, I wrote a paper from that work, the irony, hahaha….. Some times you need to wear the pants after getting rejections. You need to know that it’s not done until it’s done! When someone says no, take it as if they have said try again. And do your best, letting God take control of the rest.

Amidst all this, what has inspired you to push on every single day?
I am a Christian believer! I know the audience includes people of different beliefs – and that’s not a bad thing – but my faith has been a strong factor when it comes to inspirations. I usually write down my prayers and have luckily seen them come to pass. So the experience of going back to those notes inspires me to believe in a better tomorrow.

I will give you an example of the time I had a breast tumour for 3 years. That was during my undergraduate degree – I mean, I couldn’t afford food and this tumour thought I could afford an operation to remove it! Some man actually offered to marry me so that he helps fund the operation, hahaha…. My only option was to turn to God, and that I did through writing down my prayers. Every time I went back to those prayers, I ticked some things off, God had answered! I changed and started writing them down monthly – this is something I still do to-date.

Having a good community too has helped me push on. I have met people who have believed in me on my worst days! My job is to reach out to other people too. That helps me face another day because I believe someone out there can use my help – someone needs my help. When things are not going well for you, make them go well for other people.

I have been blessed with a husband who knows me very well. I am not saying marriage is easy but meeting a person who knows when you are really worn out and he steps in to give you some time out has been a blessing for me. My husband knows when to call out my not-so-good manners and help me become a better version of myself. He hasn’t tried to change me but has helped me improve the person that I am. And, he is a very positive person – I have never met a person that positive, haha….. Our children too have been a blessing! Getting those tight hugs and “I love you”’s from two year olds melts my heart. It makes me feel so loved, genuinely loved!

How would you encourage a young girl out there trying to find her place in the STEM field?
One thing I have realised in life is that we women are very good at working towards helping other people. We try to do the same for ourselves but once someone rubs a pinch of negative energy our way, we are gone, especially when it comes to careers. We have few role models, so what often hits us is, “if only few have made it that far then who do I think I am!”. We have to silence those voices and create the first seat on that table!

Young girls need to know is that all the discomfort about women being in STEM is something cultural. The people making you uncomfortable are in most cases victims of this culture! For example, that male colleague making funny-unfunny jokes about you learns that from the females in his life. His mother, wife, sisters, and female friends have been convinced that they don’t belong in the STEM field, and that’s what he wants you to believe too. Dare defy his expectations and he will look for ways to magnify the slightest fall in your career journey! Don’t give him that chance, pick yourself up, dust off, correct your mistakes and move forward.

If you are passionate about something and clearly know what you want, just keep going, that passion matters! Some times it feels like a very long shot but it doesn’t hurt to give it a try. Trust me there will always be people asking if you are sure about that – shut them up and aim. Some people will call you a dreamer, that’s okay, it’s your dream. Don’t fear being rejected, there’s no rejection that will leave you the same. Somehow, there’s always a lesson for you to learn along that rejection. Personally, my paternal family rejecting me during my formative years gave me huge lessons. One being that I don’t need validation from everyone in my family to thrive. The second one is that the definition of family goes beyond the biological boundary.

What are some of your achievements? We would love to celebrate you!
I have managed to publish parts of my research – anyone in academia knows how prestigious this is, haha…. I have also been invited to and presented at 7 workshops and conferences in different parts of the world. For awards, you can have a look at this list;

  • A three months research visit at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, funded by The World Academy of Sciences (TWA).
  • Winner of the Kambule Dissertation Award.
  • DAAD scholarship for my PhD studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.
  • Short-term research visit to the University of Luebeck in Germany, funded by DAAD.
  • Graduated with a masters degree in statistics, University of KwaZuluNatal.
  • Prestigious scholarship from the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences and the University of KwaZulu-Natal for my masters studies, South Africa.
  • Prestigious scholarship at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, South Africa.
  • Graduated with a Bachelor of Science with education, Makerere University.
  • Uganda government bursary to study at Makerere University, Bachelor of Science with Education Mathematics and Economics.

Who is Justine outside work?
I have a small circle of friends and outside work, I spend time with my family; husband and kids. I also enjoy going to church and being part of genuine heart-to-heart conversations.

Thank you for your time, Justine. It was nice to learn from you!

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