Still, on the quest for “hybrid” careers, we have Naomi from Cameroon speaking about her STEM journey as a woman in engineering science;
Hi Naomi, thank you so much for joining me today. Kindly introduce yourself to our audience
Thank you for the invitation, I am happy to be here. My name is Lyse Naomi Wamba from Cameroon. I am currently doing a Ph.D. in engineering science in the department of electrical engineering at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (KU Leuven) in Belgium. My domain is mainly data processing and analysis. More specifically, my Ph.D. is in the analysis of medical data.
How did you join the world of Engineering Science?
I was born and raised in Cameroon, in the economic capital called Douala. According to my parents, I was so talkative that I had to be sent to school before the “right” age, haha. I have no idea what changed when I grew up because I don’t talk that much anymore. I think I went through school as a brilliant student according to my professors, earning awards at different levels of school.
Because I started school very early, I finished my A’Level at 16 years of age and joined the Catholic University of Bamenda – CATUC. I did a bachelor’s degree in Mathematics in three years and graduated as the best student in the department. I then did a master’s in applied mathematics at the University of Buea.
At 21 years of age, I was graduating with my first master’s in mathematics and was about to move to Belgium for my second master’s in business statistics. I finished my master’s two years later, that was 2019, and was accepted into a Ph.D. program. The aspect of engineering science came in after my second master’s which concentrated on financial engineering. I was mainly applying machine learning (ML) tools in the area of financial engineering.
Coming from a Mathematics and Statistics background, Artificial Intelligence (AI) felt like the ideal field to further my career. I felt like it was more about the tools and less about the domain of application. That’s how I applied for this specific topic and luckily I got it. So, I switched from ML applied to financial engineering to ML applied to medical data.
According to your path, what are some of the most challenging moments you have encountered?
The first thing I will say is that sometimes when you finally cross some challenges, you even forget about them, haha.
At home, since I was doing STEM-related subjects, I mostly found myself the only female student in the classroom. The main issue was dealing with stereotypical remarks from people, especially about marriage and career. It requires a lot of effort to go through programs that are related to Mathematics and Sciences.
I traveled to Belgium for the second master’s a week after defending the first from Cameroon. The first challenge I had upon arriving was acquainting myself with the culture. By culture, I mean everything – how to interact with people, use google maps to find your way, ask fewer questions to people and be very independent, have little contact with your neighbors, etc. The second challenge was the difference in education. Everything here goes too fast. In just one class, a professor can go over 2 chapters, keeping up was challenging for me.
After the master’s program, I was required to leave the country immediately after graduation in case I hadn’t found anything else to do in Belgium to extend my stay. So, a month before my residence permit expired I had no plans which was very stressful for me. Two weeks before the final expiration date, I got my acceptance for the Ph.D. My supervisor did a lot for me to have my permit renewed as an emergency to allow me to start the Ph.D. without having to go home (Cameroon) and wait a month there while my documents are being processed.
Currently, as maybe all Ph.D. students will tell you, it is a big challenge on its own at different levels. My main challenge now is that my project has been tremendously delayed by Covid and other situations. Working on a data-oriented topic, data acquisition could not happen during the first 2.5 years of my work. At some point, I had panic attacks with very high anxiety levels until my supervisor had to intervene and talk about my health.
These are some serious challenges but I would like to focus on the last point. How were you able to keep your mental stability in check, knowing that you had pressure from people back home and their expectations of you?
Quitting is something I thought about many times. I remember there was a time I just decided to delete my LinkedIn page. I wanted people to forget that I ever started a Ph.D., haha. But something that helped me, which I would like others to know as well, is, that even if you think that you are an introvert, please speak up. People have gone through the things you are facing and they know how to help.
For me, it was a summer research program I applied for and was taking, the Black in AI Research program, that helped me. During the 3 months of the program, we had talks with a black lady pursuing a career in AI every week. Through these sessions, I realized that many people had gone through what I was going through, and this gave me the courage to push forward without quitting. These are some of the things that kept my mental health in check – knowing that I am not alone on this journey. But all this was only possible because I opened up and talked to people.
We have talked about the challenges, now we want to know about the wins. When have you felt like your work has been duly recognized?
Haha on a normal day, if you invited me for such an interview, I would decline. I remember being invited to share my experience with juniors when I graduated from secondary school. I declined because I felt I did nothing so special that they would be interested to listen to and take advice from.
Getting acceptance into this university for both the master’s and Ph.D. programs was such a big deal for me. My family was very happy to hear the news. The joy on my parents’ faces knowing that I am in a fully-funded program is quite something.
For prizes, I have been receiving recognition since high school. For example, in my O’Level, I was the best student in my entire region, which is the economic capital of the country. That made me earn some good money from a local company.
I was also awarded a master’s scholarship for my first master’s degree back home. It was the first time I was realising that I could be paid to study. I naturally love school, so if I can be paid to stay in school, that’s even better, haha.
I also received the Black in AI Summer research grant for 3 months, plus some data modeling prizes from the university here.
Being an introvert who takes school very seriously, do you have any free time? If you do, then what do you enjoy doing?
I had a balanced childhood, surprisingly. I enjoyed singing in the choir and swimming. During my bachelor’s degree, I did some modeling, haha, like miss university, haha… Currently, I do a lot of sports activities. I go to the gym almost every 2 days and run at least 5km.
What is your favorite quote?
I have one from Malcolm X which says, “Education is the passport for the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today”. That for me means a lot!
I am Cameroonian but I consider myself a well-rounded African. I make it a point to learn as much as I can about the entire continent. Through this, I have grown to hate the place the African lady has in our societies. I hate the fact that she has been suppressed for a very long time!
In a documentary from Benin that I recently watched, parents are renting their girls off to serve in other people’s homes, as a way to raise school fees for their brothers. I feel like all these young girls deserve an education for a better future. For me, education is everything for the development of the continent.
What’s your encouragement for a young African girl who is passionate about STEM?
Don’t let society define who you are or what your place should be. If you have dreams, fight for them. If you feel stranded about your goal, seek those you consider role models and explain your situation. We might not know this but most of the people in big places are very humble and willing to help another person.
Lastly, I will quote Einstein, “if you want to live a happy life [a life you are proud of], then tie it to a goal, not people or things”.
Thank you very much, Naomi! I am happy to have spoken with you about engineering science. Thank you for making this session fun for me. We wish you the very best in your studies.