To open Black History Month, Dr Nira Chamberlain shares his presentation on the Black Heroes of Mathematics.
In this blog, he also shares his inspiring journey to become one of the UK’s top practising scientists today, despite a lack of visible Black role models and his careers teacher advising him to pursue boxing.
“In America, out of a population of 250 million, there are 46 million African-Americans – of which it is estimated that only approximately 300 have a PhD in mathematics. An American columnist once stated that Black people were intellectually inferior because there has never been a Black Mathematician who has won the Field Medal, the greatest prize in mathematics.
“My name is Nira Chamberlain, when I was growing up mathematics was my strongest subject but I never had a passion for it but I had a dream that one day I would become some type of super mathematician. However, my career teacher stated I should become a boxer and my classmates would racially tease me if ever I became top of the class.
“In the 70’s and 80’s, there were no Black mathematical role models – just entertainers and sport stars for me to aspire to. Despite this, I pursued mathematics through GCSE, A levels, degree and finally Masters. I was never the best at what I did but I did enjoy watching other mathematicians solving the most complex of problems. I had plenty of enthusiasm but I was terrible at exams nor was very confident. Then one day I met the Congress of African-American Mathematicians who challenged me to do a PhD in mathematics, citing if you are Black and good at maths, do a PhD and destroy the intellectual stereotype! I was inspired and applied to do a PhD but, at the interview, the University Professor rejected me on the spot calling me naive and technically weak. Defeated and discouraged I went home but my Dad gave me these rousing words:
“You don’t need anybody’s permission to be a great mathematician”
“With this, I began to study harder, I lived breathed and ate mathematics. I soon realized that I may not be good in exam conditions but I was very good at solving real life mathematical problems outside academia. I went on to work in France, the Netherlands and Israel doing the mathematics that nobody else could do. 15 years later, in 2014, and within six months, I got my PhD in mathematics, I was awarded by the Science Council one of the UK’s top 100 Practising Scientists and in 2015 I became the first Black mathematician to be referenced by the Who’s Who since its establishment in 1849. There are only 30 mathematicians in the Who’s Who and they tend to be the top mathematical geniuses in Britain. I am glad I never became a boxer, but I persevered with my dream and became a super mathematician after all!
“However, I realised that Black mathematicians were still very much invisible. Hence, l decided to target as many organisations as possible, raising the Profile of Black Mathematicians! I produced a power point presentation which I put on social media and this received positive reviews from the established mathematics community. A version of the presentation was used in the Institute of Mathematics and its Application Careers website.
“In my journey, I have come across some amazing mathematicians. My mission can be summed up by Professor Rosina Mamokgethi Setati-Phakeng, the first Black South African Female to get a PhD in Mathematical Education:
“Being the first is not something to be proud about, it is a calling to ensure you are not the last.”
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