I met Philomena during my employment as a tutor at AIMS in Ghana. She was among the few ladies with a Statistics background, who fought their way through an almost Pure Mathematics study environment. Here is our interview about her STEM journey:
Hi Philo, nice to hear from you again. Thank you for joining us today
Hello Winnie, It is a pleasure to hear from you too. I have been following your work for some time now and are glad to share my story with you. Congratulations upon running such an inspirational blog.
Kindly introduce yourself please
My name is Philomena Marfo from Ghana. I am currently a PhD student at Kwame Nkurumah University of science and Technology (KNUST).
Okay, thank you! What has your STEM journey been like?
I was born in a village at Dunkwa-on-Offin in Ghana. I started school there until I was 8 years old when my father decided to send me to my grandmother in Kumasi – which was a bigger city. He was scared of me ending up as a statistic for teenage pregnancy like many girls in our neighbourhood. I ended up finishing my primary school in Kumasi and continuing with Junior high there too.
My greatest motivation for studying harder that time was my dad! I remember the times when my report card would come in; the excitement on his face and the way he used to show it to all his friends! That for me was enough motivation to study hard and that’s exactly what I did. I studied hard and got accepted into an Agricultural science course during my secondary level. This was basically all the science courses minus biology. Even though I was good in all the subjects, Mathematics came easier than all the others to me. So when I applied to the university (KNUST), I picked it as my first choice and luckily I was accepted into the program.
Surprisingly, when I went to the department of mathematics and actuarial science, there was only one female lecturer! As I speak to you right now, she is still the only female lecturer in the whole department – so you can imagine! I remember saying that I was motivated and pushed to achieve better in life so that I could be what that woman was to all the young female students accepted into that department. Things got tough along the way and my focus changed, haha. I just wanted to finish school and get a job but my friend (now my husband – thank you dear – haha) encouraged me to push harder because my grades were very good. He made me sit down and think correct – I mean if I chose to do it , then I should do it all the way. I worked harder and got better grades that helped me join the African Institute for Mathematical sciences (AIMS) Ghana for my masters.
I graduated from AIMS and joined KNUST again for an Mphil in Mathematical Statistics. From there I travelled to AIMS Cameroon as a tutor for 2 years before returning to KNUST for my current PhD position.
What challenges have you faced along this journey?
The challenges have been many; from courses to people trying to give me advice about me being a woman and the way I should stop schooling too much, haha.
The biggest challenge was during my undergraduate level. So my father is a cocoa farmer and in Ghana the cocoa season opens around September to October and universities open in early August. School would open yet the cocoa season is not open! That meant no money at home to help me return to school! I quite remember it being very challenging. I would go to class but in my mind, I felt like an intruder because I knew I hadn’t yet paid my tuition. The only thing I was hoping for was that registration doesn’t close before I could pay my fees. Some how, my dad always came through; he would find the money by all means – God bless Dad!.
What kept inspiring you amidst financial constraints and other challenging moments?
In my early life to undergraduate level, my father was my greatest inspiration. He was my cheerleader, my biggest fan. But over time as I continue to grow and change, my sources of inspiration also keep changing. At the moment, I am my own inspiration. I think the biggest project anyone can work on is themselves. Everyone should keep improving, investing in themselves, and reinventing themselves. To succeed you need to be your biggest cheerleader and always vote for yourself.
Tell us about your achievements and awards
I have had quite a few but the ones that really impacted my life are the scholarships and grants that I have received throughout my study journey. The first one I received was from the MasterCard Foundation for Msc in Mathematical Sciences at AIMS. I also received a post-AIMS bursary to help me finish my Mphil at KNUST. For my PhD in Mathematical Statistics, I am currently receiving a grant from AIMS with financial support from the Government of Canada, which is provided through Global Affairs Canada and the International Development Research Center. A big thanks to AIMS for the amazing opportunity given to me.
Who is Philomena outside work?
I am a Christian woman, married to a very special man. I say special because it’s not easy to find a husband who will support you to a point of allowing you to stay in a different country to chase your dreams. That and more make him very special in my life.
Apart from that, I am a total introvert. After my work, I shower, get in bed with my laptop and look for a good series. That’s enough to energise me for the next day.
What is your favourite quote?
I have many quotes but what resonates with me most is; “To live is to choose, but to choose well you must know who you are and what you stand for, where you want to go and why you want to get there” ~ Kofi Annan.
What words of advice would you give a young girl starting her STEM journey?
Nothing is easy in this life! Being a woman in STEM is not easy, but yet again, nothing is really easy. Be focused and whatever the case might be, keep moving – nothing should stop you. It is okay to some times be defeated and cry your eyes out – we have all done that, haha. But what happens after that is the most vital thing. Get up and keep moving, if it means crawling, crawl but keep moving.
Side note to the readers: In case anything on my website excites you, please feel free to get in touch and we can organise a session.
Thank you for sharing your STEM story through us, Philomena! We wish you the best on your PhD journey.