Keep Moving, Never Give Up – Victoria Okesipe

 

I got to know Victoria through LinkedIn but later found out that she is a current AIMS student, pursuing a masters in climate modeling at AIMS Cameroon. Here is our interview about her scientific journey:

Hi Victoria, how are you today?
Hi Winnie! I am fine. I hope you are fine as well.

Yes I am fine too, thanks. Thank you for joining us, and for the willingness to share your story
It is my pleasure. I wanted to do this as soon as possible because you know how busy this AIMS life is.

What is your full name?
My name is Victoria Okesipe.

What do you do currently?
I am currently in African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) Cameroon, studying a masters degree in the science of climate change. So here in AIMS Cameroon, the structure is split into 3 streams for the first time; we have Fundamental Mathematics, the Data Science, and Climate Science. The difference happens when we concentrate on courses that expose us to knowledge about how the climate system works. We study elements of the climate system and deeply understand how climate change affects humans on planet earth. All this information prepares us to suggest means of correcting the damages caused by climate change. We also get a chance to work with real climate-related data; this is good because we already have knowledge about data analysis that we acquire from the main stream.

Tell us a little bit about your life journey
Well, I am still a very small girl – if I can say, haha.

I grew up as a very shy girl! You know that the consciousness of life begins at a certain level, right? What I remember clearly is in primary school where we had this child-like competition. It was always about who is going to perform best in a given exercise – extra curicullar or in class, haha…. According to the Nigerian education system, my parents were advised to have me stop in Primary 4 and try the common entrance examination to promote me to secondary school. To the glory of God, I passed this examination. That is how I left primary school without fully completing Primary 4.

I did the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME), but didn’t make the passmark of 200 to allow me join any university. My grade of 174 made me extremely sad! I didn’t fail because I didn’t prepare, no! I actually prepared but examinations being the way they are, I somehow didn’t make it. A friend of mine from church advised me to opt for a teacher training program, which is the National Certificate in Education. The goal of the school is for you to become a trained teacher, but you can do a direct entry into university without doing UTME. I chose my subject combination as Physics and Mathematics because of the passion I got every time I looked through my O’level Mathematics books.

This was a trying time because I had to discover myself in order to know what I would be comfortable with in the long run. I finally realised that I was more comfortable with anything that had to do with numbers than things that involved turning many pages to grasp a concept. In my mind, Mathematics communicated faster than anything else. I just see 1 + 1 and I know that gives me 2, simple! Haha.. (that’s not all about Mathematics, let me not deceive you!). Before graduating, I got a chance to teach Physics during my teaching practice session, at my alma mater – which is a girls only school. I was able to connect with the girls there and taught them some of the things I had learned. I was also able to hold elderly conversation on topics outside Mathematics. This was also a time for me to find myself; I realised that preparing content for class is easier for me in Mathematics than Physics.

I combined my distinction in Physics with my Mathematics grade and got an overall distinction in the teacher training program. I was then able to apply to the prestigious University of Ibadan. Now here Mathematics turned into something different; I wasn’t seeing numbers any more, but letters instead! Things were tough for me but I was able to attain a first class in my first academic year. My second year was however different, I wasn’t part of the first class any more. This hurt but gave me more determination to work harder. This time I did my industrial training from the University of Ibadan, Laboratory for Interdisciplinary Statistical Analysis. I learned different software, like, R, SPSS, and LaTex. This was another moment for me to really think about what I wanted to do with my passion for Mathematics. I finally believed that I was more comfortable with something that had to do with combining my Mathematical skills with Computer related work. I also gained more confidence in what I knew and what I was capable of doing.

I had to return to school after my training, but this time I came back with A LOT of determination. I was ready to work harder than I did before, trusting that the process was going to yield good success. When it came to my project in the final year, I chose to do something related to data science since I was already exposed to that during my industrial training. For this project, I used statistical methods of analysis, explaining the Mathematics behind those methods, and was accepted in the Department of Mathematics. Around the same time, I decided to blindly apply for the AIMS scholarship which I luckily got. I say “blindly” because the system in my school didn’t allow us to see our results before the final year. I later realised that I had graduated with a first class; my hard work had paid off.

AIMS has been nothing short of my expectations. I have been guided, encouraged, mentored, motivated,…name it. Recently I was advised to keep a professional experience on top of my academic life. I have to keep doing something constructive outside school so that my relevance continues and my purpose keeps increasing. This will help me fit better into the job market. This was after the tutors discovered that I am more of an industrial person than academics. This kind of environment is what I needed in my life.

I didn’t mention this but I am from a humble background; my parents are not engineers or doctors, but they have played a big role in making me the person I am today. I appreciate the fact that they are believers and they keep encouraging me. Over the years, I have always gotten chances to teach people – that’s how I have been able to compliment my sustainability with and without stress on campus until I got to AIMS where I have been given everything, plus stipend. This kind of peace has allowed me concentrate on my studies without having to worry about survival.

My non-linear journey has been made a bit comfortable and smooth with the help of God, through people he has placed in my life.

What have you found most challenging?
What I have found most challenging is survival. Surviving as a female child when you are not born with a silver spoon is challenging. If you don’t have what it takes for people to pay you then you might be in trouble. In my case, I had the teacher training experience, so it helped me always get someone who needed coaching, maybe in Mathematics or Physics. But even then, it required a lot of sacrifice because I was required to take part of my school time, to make some money. Remember I was a determined student who wanted to perform well in school, having to take time off to do this was really draining. But I had to, and I did.

Another challenge is being a girl-child in Mathematics. I am the kind of person that likes to understand things. The good thing is, once I understand, I can’t fail to transfer the knowledge. If I can’t transfer it, then I haven’t yet understood the concept and that makes me feel very uncomfortable. So, it is challenging to be in class with people who maybe understand faster than you do, but shut down your questions because they believe some concepts are beyond your level of understanding since you are woman. Someone like me who has been a quiet child finds it even harder to prosper in such an environment.

What inspires you to keep pushing on in life, amidst all these challenges?
My family; my family inspires me – this includes my mother, father, and my two brothers. These people believe in me very much and keep supporting me. The money might not be there, but the emotional support I get from them is extraordinary. I also know that if I don’t make it in life, my family is going to keep lagging behind; like I mentioned earlier, I am from a humble background. So I see it as something I do for my family, but also for myself; I need to find my purpose in life.

I will not forget to mention my dear friend Engr. Temilolu Babalola; he is one of the key people in my life.

Tell us about some of your achievements in life
I would like to put my hands together for myself, haha… the very first thing I want to talk about is very personal to me. It’s about the recent Pi-Day that was celebrated. I got an email from CIMPA in AIMS South Africa that they needed a video contribution for a fun game. This game was about presenting a missing field medal. So, there are hypothetically some students who witnessed the stealing of this medal. Now CIMPA and AIMS South Africa have to interview these students, who I am part of. They believe that I have an idea on how to help them get the missing medal. They are going to solve a puzzle for me and the reward is for me to give them information about the missing medal. The game was a way of bridging the gap between solving a very complex Mathematics problem and communicating the findings in a way that’s fun and engaging.

I spoke with some of my colleagues about how to approach the problem and at the end of the day, my video emerged as the best contribution in the contest because I used a little bit of animation.

Okay, my list of achievements is;

  • Treasure Hunt Game Best Video Contribution Prize from CIMPA and AIMS South Africa; bridging the gap between Mathematical Sciences and society through videos in a fun and engaging way.
  • My current AIMS Scholarship is another thing I am proud of.
  • Owopetu Yoloye Foundations Scholarship Award; Merit-based grant for students pursuing education in Mathematics.
  • Dean’s List Prize for Academic Excellence; recognition for first class students in the Faculty of Science, University of Ibadan.
  • Inter-level Quiz Competition; won second place inter-level quiz competition.

What do you enjoy doing outside work?
I enjoy creating animation videos. I love playing with tools and trying out different things related to life-board animation videos. Things like, how to move my canvas, how to mix colours, how to turn text into video,.… Some times I try voice-overs, change my voice to sound exciting, …haha I just enjoy things to do with computers generally. I find them entertaining and also sources of income in a way.

I also enjoy watching videos on public speaking. For an introvert, this is one of my points of weakness. One thing I realised is, doing Mathematics is not just for the sake of doing it; I am doing it to solve real-life problems. That will involve communicating my findings and research. So, that’s why I am working to improve my public speaking skills. I am also learning how to listen critically and be able to give constructive comments – positive or negative.

What is your favourite quote?
The faintest ink is more powerful than the sharpest memory” ~ Chinese proverb. Each time I find a concept difficult, I remember a sheet of paper and that ink close to me. As long as I can write that concept down, I will always go back to it to remind myself what it is about. It’s a form of encouragement for me, I mean, that’s how the world is able to venture into data usage. If nothing was stored tangibly, nothing would be available for use.

Lastly, what is your word of encouragement for a young girl in STEM?
Just two words; keep moving. Regardless of where you are starting from, you might not know anything about where you are heading, but keep moving, don’t give up! As long as you can identify where you are, what’s making you stuck and how you can break those barriers. Just keep moving; the journey is long but just keep moving. Before you know it, your profile will be big and you will have achieved your dreams.

Thank you for sparing some time to speak with me today. I know how busy your schedule at AIMS is! Thank you very much.

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