Dr. Olivia Nabawanda is currently the youngest woman to get a Ph.D. in Mathematics from Makerere University in Uganda. Here is the story behind her successful STEM journey;
Hi Olivia, we are finally getting the story out there. It’s been a long time but worth the wait. Thanks for joining us today
Hi Winnie, thanks for being patient with me. I knew I needed to give you the full story but didn’t know how to ask for more time without spilling the beans, haha.
Please introduce yourself to our audience
My name is Olivia Nabawanda from Uganda. I recently graduated with a Ph.D. in Mathematics from Makerere University in Uganda as the youngest Ph.D. holder in this area of Mathematics. Currently, I am a Lecturer of Mathematics at Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST), as well as a researcher under International Science Program (ISP) support.
I am also an active member of Uganda Women Mathematicians (UGAWOM) and the Eastern African Network for Women in Basic Sciences (EANWoBAS). These networks unite all women mathematicians in Uganda and East Africa respectively. We do school visits, career guidance, counseling, and mentorship, as well as building each other within the network. This is through training and leadership workshops.
I am also an active member of the Combinatorial Research Studio (CoRS). This is a research group for students who are interested in Enumerative Combinatorics, a branch of pure mathematics. It is a research group with collaborators from Africa, Sweden, and France at the moment. And we are still looking for more students interested in joining us.
Walk us through this journey of becoming the youngest Ph.D. in Mathematics holder
I was born in a village called Kanjuki in Kayunga district, to my late father and my mother, Ms. Janepher Namakula. Among all children, I am the firstborn, and first daughter. I went through two primary schools – Kanjuki c/u primary school and St. Bruno Kanjuki R/C primary school, which are located in Kayunga. For my secondary school, I joined Kanjuki Senior secondary school, also located in Kayunga, where I was for both my O’ and A’ levels.
At A’level I did Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and Mathematics. I had dreams of doing a course in the medical field. My dream course was pharmacy but the points I got could not enable me to get a government scholarship in a medical-related course. Although it was possible to do the course under private sponsorship, funding was a big challenge.
Meanwhile, with my performance, I was among the lucky ones to get government sponsorship but in a different course, i.e., Bachelor of Science with Education (Physics and Mathematics) as the teaching subjects.
My teachers never wanted me to go for a course in Education. They wanted me in the medical field but little did they know that God had different plans for me. They tried convincing my dad to at least try and pay for me on private, an idea he bought but later dropped when the semester was about to begin. I, unfortunately, lost my dad after finishing only one semester of my Education degree.
Towards the end of my course, one of my lecturers advised me to go for a master’s. I had never thought of that because I planned to move out of the university, look for money and then privately pay for the course I initially wanted. Fate had a different package for me!
The same lecturer went ahead to send me a link to a scholarship and advised me to try my luck. That is when I came to learn about the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS). I applied for this scholarship and I was among the lucky ones who were selected! So I went for my master’s in Mathematical Sciences at AIMS in Ghana. It was from there that I was called to start lecturing at Mbarara University of Science and Technology.
While at MUST, an opportunity came! We received visitors from Makerere University’s mathematics department, being led by Prof. John Mango who has been the PI of this project. They were briefing us about the Sida Bilateral Research Program. Mathematics had won a grant whose aim was to train members of staff in public universities in Uganda, to build capacity. Since I was already attached to a public university, I qualified. So I applied and was given the opportunity, hence the beginning of my Ph.D. in Mathematics.
My Ph.D. journey has been a long one since I started with two years of course work and then research. I got a chance to work with very nice and supportive supervisors, namely: Dr. Alex Samuel Bamunoba from Makerere University, Prof. Paul Vaderlind from Stockholm University, and Prof. Fanja Rakotondrajao from the University of Antananarivo.
I am who I am today because of the support of all my teachers, lecturers, supervisors, my parents, family, and above all God. I have been a blessed child since the beginning, and I thank God so much for that.
One can be tempted to think you had a smooth career journey that led to your current status. Did you face any challenges along the way?
Negativity from various people especially men (not all) some of whom have the perception that going far in academics is a thing for them and that women are supposed to be in the kitchen!
Another small challenge was having to spend the Christmas holidays for three consecutive years away from home.
How have you been able to stay motivated and inspired through these challenges?
You can always become someone if you stay determined, work hard, and focused. Your background doesn’t determine who you are going to become. There is nothing impossible before God if you cast all your burdens and life unto him.
Let’s talk about some of your achievements and awards as a woman in STEM
I have received the Combinatorial Research Studio (CoRS) Post-doc grant under the ISP research program at Stockholm University.
As mentioned earlier, I was awarded the Makerere-Sida Research Program Ph.D. Scholarship Award at Makerere University.
I also received the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS: Affiliated to the University of Cape Coast, Ghana) fully funded scholarship, to do my master’s degree in Mathematical Sciences.
My very first award was a fully-funded scholarship by the Ugandan government to do my bachelor’s degree (Bsc. Education: Mathematics and Physics) at Mbarara University of Science and Technology.
Apart from these scholarships, I have been a virtual Speaker in the workshop “High-Level Debate on Gender Equality”, in Mauritius.
What do you enjoy doing outside work?
I enjoy swimming, traveling, watching movies, and cooking. For emphasis, I also like talking about how proud I am to be an African.
What is your favorite quote?
“Fortune favors the brave” ~ Virgil.
How do you encourage a young African girl who is passionate about STEM?
Your family background doesn’t matter if you have a dream. It is possible! Don’t feel sorry for yourself. Get up, be strong, focused, and work hard.
Thank you very much for your time, Olivia! It is such an honor to be speaking to women who are making history. You will go down in the books of history as the youngest Ph.D. Mathematics holder of this time. Congratulations once again.