Promoting Mathematics to Girls in Ghana

By Kendall Powell

Female mathematicians are inspiring young people in Africa to pursue careers in unconventional fields.

Voices from Africa: Angela Tabiri, who researches quantum algebra at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) in Accra, was a PhD student at the University of Glasgow, UK, when she launched Femafricmaths in 2018. The network shares the stories of African female mathematicians through video interviews posted on social media. The vision is to help young girls become confident in pursuing careers in mathematics and related fields. Tabiri’s profile is the third of eight in which African women share their science-career stories with Nature.

I graduated from the University of Ghana in Accra with a combined degree in economics and mathematics. One of my mentors told me about the opportunity to study for a master’s degree at AIMS, a network of centres of excellence across Africa, which had just opened a site in Accra.

That was a turning point for me. It was like being immersed in a 24-hour learning environment. They bring in renowned lecturers from around the world to live there and teach three-week intensive courses. It was tough, with assignments due every Saturday at midnight. But I liked doing the challenging bits. That training also helped me to acquire digital and presentation skills.

I decided to apply to the University of Glasgow for a PhD. But that meant that I needed funding. I applied for and won a Faculty for the Future fellowship from the Schlumberger Foundation, which provides funding for women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) from low-income countries to study at leading universities around the world. The foundation is looking for female leaders — you have to have academic excellence, but also show a commitment to promoting women in STEM in your home country.

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In Glasgow, I really grew in terms of my skills and abilities. I also realized the power of social media to showcase and promote my research online. There is an audience out there looking for something beyond the ‘maths is difficult’ narrative.

I started the Femafricmaths initiative because I didn’t see many mathematicians that were people of colour, and particularly women — it’s not a narrative for most girls in Africa. Femafricmaths is a network of African female mathematicians who highlight their different career paths through social media and promote the study of maths at schools.

I returned to Ghana in 2019 and started a postdoctoral position at AIMS. Often, in the field of maths, you might be the only female in a workplace team and that means that you have to be a bit tough. When I was teaching, instead of ‘Doctor’ the students called me ‘Madame’. Colleagues made comments about me starting a family and said that I might never get married. There’s a cultural pressure of ‘What are you doing competing in the space of men? You should be in the kitchen.’

Women should find their voice. People will always find ways to bully you or look down on you. Whatever environment I’m in, I need to find my voice and speak up.

Once you know what you want to do, carve your own niche. I’m good at algebra, but I’m also good at science communication and helping girls to follow STEM studies. So I developed myself in those areas — there are so many things I bring to the table. Find your voice, develop your skills and then when people downplay your abilities on the basis of gender, let all your success speak for you.

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One challenge in abstract maths research is staying motivated. I tell myself that my research will enable technology to be built 100 years from now. So I had better make sure my work is true and accurate, so that it can be picked up when needed. I also teach pure maths to people who want to become engineers and computer scientists. They need to be taught well.

Maths research is hard — you have to be patient and determined to keep coming back to the same problem and trying it in different ways. The answer might not come to you for years. But, when you finally have a discovery and something eventually works — I don’t even know how to describe that feeling.

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