Women in Stochastic Analysis – Sorelle Murielle Toukam

If you haven’t met women who speak passionately about their work, here is Sorelle speaking about what she does in Stochastic Analysis;

Hi Sorelle, I am very excited to have you with us today
Thank you, Winnie. I am happy to be here.

Thank you for joining us on this episode of Words That Cont. Please introduce yourself to our audience
Thank you very much for the invitation and I am more than happy to be here. My name is Sorelle Murielle Toukam from Cameroon. I did my bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in Egypt before joining the Africa Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) in Ghana, for a master’s degree. In December 2021, I completed a research-based master’s in Mathematical Sciences, with a focus on Stochastic Analysis, also in Ghana. 

Currently, I specialize in stochastic optimal control, which is about solving control problems using the theory of stochastic analysis. This is a field where we model random phenomena using stochastic differential equations. When I say random phenomenon I mean anything uncertain with some probability of occurrence.

For example, how can we apply the theory of Stochastic analysis to control the Covid-19 problem? If your cost is the number of test kits that are available to test people, you will want to make sure that you maximize the use of these kits to detect positive cases. It will be non-optimal if you test 100 people and only 2 of them are positive. The optimal control way is for you to use these 100 kits in a place where you know you will get the maximum number of cases with the minimum number of kits.

How did you join the world of Mathematics, specifically Stochastic Analysis?
I knew that I wanted to further in a STEM field since high school. The question was more about what field exactly, I was inclined to choose either Mathematics or Engineering. The limited choices I had left a small room for confusion about career choices. 

I come from a biology-career family, so my parents expected me and my twin sister to go into that same field. We graduated from high school with a specialization in Biological and Mathematical Science. In my mind, I was more comfortable with Mathematics than Biology and this was reflected in my transcript.

Our parents paid fees for the entrance examination into the medical school, which my sister passed and I failed. This puzzled my mother a lot; she couldn’t understand why my sister would pass and I failed! In her mind, we had the same desires and levels of understanding. My father on the other hand was very supportive of my decision to join a mathematical field. I have to mention that my mother’s concern wasn’t because she doubted my capability. It was just because of the comments she heard from people about women pursuing careers in Mathematics.

In the year that followed, I applied for a scholarship to study electrical engineering at Cairo University in Egypt. I also did an entrance examination to do electrical and mechanical engineering back in Cameroon. My family was very happy because I got selected for both opportunities. I went to Egypt instead because I was awarded a competitive scholarship and to my understanding, it meant that the selection committee judged my profile to be qualified for completing a degree in Electrical Engineering. From there on, I started becoming more confident about what I wanted to do for my future.

The confidence you speak with makes me wonder; have you had any challenges on your path?
Once I started my degree in Egypt, it was hard for me because I was coming from a mathematics and biology background. Things became very technical for me at the beginning because I had missed some fundamental subjects in high school. This meant that I had to work harder than other students to make it. That was my first challenge.

My second challenge was coming from engineering back into mathematics. The engineering curriculum is a combination of theories and some out-of-class work. My mind had gotten accustomed to that angle of thinking throughout my undergraduate degree. I found it hard concentrating on Mathematics again – I found it too theoretical for me at the beginning.

The third challenge was leaving my family for another country at a young age – 17 years. I spent 4 years before visiting them because my scholarship didn’t give me that much money for frequent flights. Social media was available but it didn’t feel the same as talking to them physically. This made me sad sometimes but the connections I made also helped me stay stable during that time. Sometimes school can be so wicked, haha!

I understand what you mean when you talk about how tough school can be! How have you been able to push forward?
Haha, that’s a very good question! I was raised in an environment where we were recommended to learn how to take our time when passing through a trying phase. My mom especially taught me how to go until the end of anything I start. If I know I will not be willing to finish, I was taught to not bother starting at all. Sometimes circumstances don’t always allow us to finish what we start, and that’s okay but I always try to work until the end of things.

Before giving up, I take a step back and look at why things didn’t work out as I expected them to. That gives me a chance to come in with a different strategy to help me overcome my initial challenges. I also share my low moments with people around me, friends, colleagues,…you know! In general, I push forward because of the principles from my childhood.

Let’s talk about moments when you felt appreciated for what you do
I will start with my first scholarship to study Engineering in Egypt. This opportunity made me believe that I could do something great and become someone of value.

I was also awarded the AIMS scholarship, which was followed by the Emmy Noether award. This is usually awarded to the best graduating female student of the year. For me, this was a personal recognition because I was coming from an engineering background with limited knowledge of Mathematics. However, by always trying to learn and improve on aspects I needed to get better at, I was able to witness how worthy and necessary my upbringing was and that was very gratifying. 

I then got another scholarship for a master’s by research program (Mphil). Now that I am telling my story, I realize I haven’t been paying tuition fees since high school, haha. I am grateful to my family and everyone who has given me a chance to go to school.

How do you spend your out-of-work time?
I am a movie person, haha. I can’t point out a specific genre but love watching everything, as long as it’s a good movie. The other thing I enjoy doing is graphic designing. I am not an expert at it but I enjoy designing different things. Oh, one thing I can’t forget is bowling. I am not that strong but enjoy watching those bottles get down.

What is your favorite quote?
If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together” ~ African proverb. Sometimes we want to do things alone because we believe that we can achieve things better when we are alone, but people always help us see things from a different perspective. This is something I have learned throughout my academic and personal life.

How would you encourage a young girl who is passionate about STEM?
To a young girl who is passionate about STEM, I would say that your background should not be an obstacle to achieving your goals in life. As long as it’s something you are passionate about, go for it. Nothing should stop you from putting in your best once you have the opportunity to.

Always speak to people in your circles and don’t be afraid to give it a try.

Thank you, Sorelle, for giving us part of your time, we appreciate you. I like what you are doing in stochastic analysis and wish you the very best in life.

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