Why Mathematics? You Ask – Sokhar Samb

We always wonder about what career paths exist for people who are passionate about Mathematics. Today, we bring a lady who answers the “why” behind Mathematics;

Hi Sokhar, thank you very much for accepting to be our guest today. We are honoured to have you
Hi Winnie, I am happy to be your guest today and I appreciate the work you are doing. Thanks to Deborah for recommending me.

Kindly give our audience a brief introduction about who you are
My name is Sokhar Samb from Senegal. I did my studies in applied Mathematics and Computer Science. Currently, I am a Data Engineer, working remotely with a company based in France, as their Machine Learning Engineer.

I also like academia like you, so, I teach at Dakar American University of Technology during my free time.

It’s wonderful to meet another woman pursuing a non-traditional career in STEM! How did you join the world of Machine Learning?
When I was young, I didn’t know what I could do with Mathematics or who a Mathematician was! But, during my last year in primary school, I fell in love with calculations and solving Mathematics problems. My favourite day became Friday, not because I am a Moslem but because I knew I would be solving 4 Mathematical problems. This was my foundation in loving Mathematics.

My main motivation for Mathematics came from my elder sister, who also loved the subject. I could see her energy when discussing with the guys in her class and going to class meetings. I knew she loved what she was doing and wanted to be like her. My dad always joked about where we got the genes for Mathematics from because he was terrible at it, haha.

I went ahead to pursue Mathematics but didn’t know what I was going to use it for. At some point, I wanted to cross over to Physics because we all believed that Mathematicians are only good for teaching and that’s not what I wanted.

Lucky for me, when I joined the university, I was allowed to do applied mathematics and computer science. After my bachelor’s degree, I did a master’s degree in Stochastic Calculus – something close to Probability and Statistics. After this program, I didn’t want to do theoretical things anymore. I wanted to dive into the practical part of Mathematics, and that’s how I discovered the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS).

AIMS was the beginning of my journey into data-related work – big data, data science, etc. After AIMS, I had an internship in data science, where I discovered Machine Learning. To become good in my then-new discovery, I had to leave my job and upgrade through the African Masters in Machine Intelligence (AMMI) program, still under AIMS.

That’s how I got my skills as a Machine Learning Engineer, which is my current job title.

Apart from the confusion of not knowing what you were going to use your passion for, what other challenge did you face along your STEM journey?
My biggest challenge was the way society looked at me as a young girl in STEM. For example, in my high school, I was the only girl in a pure mathematics class. Everyone was looking at me like I was not normal. I had to do everything with the boys, even when they didn’t want me to, haha. I wasn’t looking at them as “men”, rather as people I was in a class with. It wasn’t an easy experience but I had supportive people around me, like my dad and lecturers.

I am also constantly guided by my passion – this is what I want to do and I will do it. I have also surrounded myself with people who have the same vision as mine. Imagine if you want to do Mathematics but keep around people who think about different things! It might be harder for you to achieve your goal in time.

Okay, Sokhar; let’s talk about some of the prestigious moments you have had so far as a Mathematician?
I had some recognition during my early days of school. From my high school, through university, I couldn’t imagine myself having someone ahead of me in class, haha.

I also got a scholarship to the university as one of the best students in Metric here in Senegal. Next were my AIMS and AMMI scholarships, plus the recent mention among the 35 most influential women in Africa by CIO Africa. That was a very big thing for me.

How do you enjoy spending your spare time?
I have gotten myself used to being with my laptop so much that even when I am not working, I am still with my laptop. My dad calls me “madam computer”, haha. Without my laptop, I like watching comedies and going for sports; I jog a lot. Maybe shopping as well; we can add it to the list.

What is your favourite quote?
If you have the knowledge, let others light their candles at it” ~ Margaret Fuller.

Lastly, how would you encourage a young girl who is passionate about STEM?
Don’t let anyone take you off what you want to do. Always believe in yourself; “this is what I want to do and I will go for it”. Another thing I can say is for you to listen to people’s stories. I am saying this because I believe that if I had listened to another woman doing something I love, my journey would have been different.

What I have realized is that people in STEM don’t have an open mind when young. All we know is going to school, doing hard stuff, always solving equations on the board to show people that we are strong. But no specific goal in mind. Because of this, I started an association called Women Promoting Science to the Younger Generation (WPSYG). Our objective is to talk to students in high school, to help them discover what the world of Mathematics has outside class.

Most African kids start coding while in university at the earliest, which is very late! We need to meet them as early as possible, in my case, in high school, to help them know the available career paths available for them.

Thank you so much, Sokhar! It has been such a great honour to write about you. Please keep doing what you do; we need your efforts. I can’t wait for our next interactions.

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