PhD, Pure Mathematics – Grace Omollo Misereh


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I met Grace during my masters at AIMS in Ghana. She was the very first person I met once I stepped out of the aeroplane. We have been friends until today. Here is our interview about her STEM journey:

Kindly state your name please.
My name is Grace Omollo Misereh.

What do you do currently?
Currently, I am a full time Pure Mathematics PhD student at La Trobe University, Australia. I have finished the research work, and I am now working on my thesis. I hope to submit it this month. Besides that, I tutor undergraduate Mathematics at La Trobe. Recently I also started volunteering in neighbouring high schools, to help young boys and girls develop the love of Mathematics at a tender age.

It’s not everyday that you find a female African with a PhD in Pure Mathematics! Please walk us through this journey
I was born in a small village in Siaya District, Nyanza Province, Kenya. This is not far from where Obama’s father was born, haha. I am part of a large family and I had a very happy early childhood. My journey began in a local, small, primary school which my siblings and I attended. I obtained a good score and I was lucky to get admission at a good high school, Ngiya Girls High School. Things took a surprising turn when I lost my mother immediately after that. This was devastating since I had lost my father two years earlier. Being a top student, I was lucky to be taken by the AGAPE counselling and training centre and they paid all my school fees.

I obtained a score of A-, which earned me an admission at Moi University, in Kenya, where I studied Bachelor of Education Science (Maths major, Physics minor). After my degree, I taught Maths and Physics in two different high Schools, before joining the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) in Ghana, where I met Winnie and other young, brilliant African students. Together, we went through the tough AIMS program to obtain a master of Mathematical Sciences. AIMS changed my life as I later joined the University of Ghana for a master of philosophy degree, where I studied under a very lovely supervisor who guided me to get my current position.

What is your current research about?
In layman’s terms, my research is on Topological graph Theory, more specifically, on a problem proposed by the genius Mathematician, John Horton Conway. In the late 1960s, he conjectured that the number of edges in a particular type of graphs, which he referred to as thrackles, cannot exceed the number of the vertices. This is a very hard conjecture to prove, and it has remained unsolved for all these years, leaving Conway’s prize of $1000 dollars unclaimed (now $1000 in the 60s was a lot of money, haha). While I have not been able to solve Conway’s problem, my research has shed more light on different aspects of this type of graphs. We have introduced a different class of these thrackles, and have proved Conway’s Conjecture for this class of thrackles. We have also proved the Conjecture for small graphs using computer codes.

At the moment, what is your biggest challenge?
The greatest challenge I have is being a mother and a student at the same time. My husband and I were blessed with a baby last year and I did not take a maternity leave. In a country like Australia where there are no nannies and no house helps (and child care is too expensive for non-residents) it gets tricky sometimes. You are a student, you work, you are a mother, a nanny and the house help all wrapped in one. There are days I have to drive to the university at night, as late as 8pm or sometimes 9pm, just to get a few things done. I am grateful for the experience, as now I fully understand what our house helps back home have to deal with every single day. I am also very thankful for the full support of my family and beautiful friends with hearts of gold who help me take care of my eight-month-old son. On top of that, I am also blessed with very good supervisors. To say that they are the best is an understatement.

How about your inspiration?
What inspires me is how far I have come. I had a very rough start in life. That rough start has been my source of strength; truly what doesn’t brake you only makes you stronger. When I look back I realize that giving up is not an option for me. Having lost both parents, my siblings and I raised each other up. All we had was love to share among us. Telling my story without mentioning my siblings is impossible. They have held my hand through this journey. When I fall, they pick me up, hold my hands and walk with me. Also as a former high school teacher I have people who look up to me. Sometimes I get messages in my inbox saying, “madam you inspire me”. Every time I get such, I realize I have to keep moving, not only for me, but also for such people. In short, they inspire me too.

Tell us about your prestigious awards and achievements along this journey
For achievements, I have co-authored two papers, which are as a result of the research done as a PhD student. The papers have been published in peer-reviewed journals.

I do have a number of awards;

  • As a student at La Trobe University, I won the first prize for the 3 Minute Thesis competition (3MT) held at the college of Science, Health and Engineering in 2016. The competition involved explaining my research to a general (non-mathematics) audience in three minutes.
  • In 2015 I was awarded the very competitive Australian Postgraduate Award (APA) Scholarship and the International Postgraduate Research Scholarship (IPRS) to study PhD in Pure Mathematics at La Trobe University, Australia.
  • In 2013, I was awarded the post AIMS bursary to do a Master of Philosophy in Pure Mathematics at the University of Ghana, Legon.
  • In 2012, I was awarded the prestigious AIMS full scholarship which is a awarded to African nationals to pursue a Masters degree in Mathematical Sciences.

What do you enjoy doing outside work.
I am a Christian, I am a believer. When I feel exhausted I pray, when I feel happy, I thank God. I am a mother and I am a wife to a very special man. You must agree with me when I say that finding a man who still smiles at you when you get home at 3a.m is almost impossible.

Anything additional, maybe a quote, word of encouragement, future steps
n my journey there are many people, some not mentioned here, who have held my hand. My advice? Never be embarrassed to ask for help, say “Hey, I need you, I cannot do this by myself.” One is too small a number for success, be it in business, academics, or just in life in general. Take the help when it is offered, do not be self-sufficient, and always keep moving on, no matter the circumstances. At some point life will throw huge blocks, do not let that put you down. Future steps? I am not sure, I just have to take it one day at a time, but I believe the future can only get brighter.

Thank you Grace for taking your time to speak to me.

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