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Features: Faculty Insights


Mathematics at Cambridge is open to everyone and there's a passionate drive to increase diversity among staff and students. The Hidden Figures in Mathematics event, which took place as part of the Cambridge Festival, was part of a range of activities to support this commitment.

"You don't need anyone's permission to be a great mathematician," is the catchphrase of Dr Nira Chamberlain, President of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications and one of the UK’s leading professional mathematicians. Chamberlain is passionate about encouraging people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds to study mathematics, and so was a perfect host for this online event at the Cambridge Festival in April 2021. The session introduced three Cambridge mathematics graduates, Jeannie Okikiolu, Dr Shehu AbdusSalam and Uzoma Igboaka, and gave the audience the chance to ask them questions.

Forensics, finance and fundamental forces

All three panel members did mathematics at Cambridge, but their current careers could not be more diverse. Jeannie Okikiolu is a forensic accountant, who searches for evidence in accountancy documents much like a crime scene investigator searches for clues at the scene of a crime. The aim is to help settle disputes, for example in litigation and insurance claims, and to investigate suspicious circumstances. She runs her own consultancy firm and has worked, among others, with the Serious Fraud Office, the Financial Conduct Authority, and the Financial Reporting Council.

You don't need anyone's permission to be a great mathematician. Nira Chamberlain

Dr Shehu AbdusSalam is a theoretical physicist who investigates the fundamental particles and forces of nature, and tries to find out how the Universe came into existence. He has held academic posts in Rome at La Sapienza, ICTP in Trieste, and at Shahid Beheshti University, Tehran, where he is currently based. Born in Nigeria, he attended the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, which was founded by former Cambridge mathematician Professor Neil Turok, and completed his PhD at Cambridge as a Gates scholar.

Uzoma Igboaka is an investment banker who started his career at Goldman Sachs and has held various senior banking roles, for example as Head of European Investment Grade Credit Trading at BNP Paribas. He is currently a Managing Director at Jefferies, a US financial services company. Apart from making the money markets spin he has been involved in a Soho-based outreach project that supports the homeless and also serves as a trustee for Wonder Foundation, a charity that sponsors educational programmes for women and girls in the developing world.

Chamberlain and the audience put a wide range of questions to the panellists, from "what's your favourite area of maths?" to "who is your favourite Black mathematician?" (mums, dads and teachers featured heavily for this last one). And while the extent to which the panellists use mathematics in their current jobs varies, all three agreed that the skills they have picked up in their degrees at Cambridge have been essential in their careers. While AbdusSalam uses hard mathematics every day as the language that describes the Universe, Igboaka and Okikiolu rely heavily on the problem solving skills and razor-sharp thought processes that mathematics enables — and, in Okikiolu's case, the ability to spot when someone is trying to pull the wool over your eyes with an intimidating mathematical formula.

Encouraging diversity

When asked about problems surrounding race, Igboaka pointed to a "collective awakening" he feels has happened across the business and finance community. "It's an awakening that is asking 'is our workforce diverse and reflective of society?' and is beginning to put structures in place to address it. Also the BLM movement has accelerated the race issue and again has [prompted] professionals and industry to take that introspective look at themselves."

AbdusSalam stressed that his experiences at the University of Cambridge and other universities has been entirely positive —"It's all been love, and teaching, and people [supporting me]" — but also points to a chicken-and-egg situation regarding university education. As long as people from Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority backgrounds are under-represented at universities, parents and teachers will feel less inclined to encourage students from these backgrounds to apply, so the under-representation is entrenched.

The University of Cambridge is engaged in a variety of activities designed to break this cycle. Apart from the Hidden Figures event at the Cambridge Festival, the Mathematics Faculty holds summer schools to inspire students who identify as Black, Pakistani, or Bangladeshi to study at Cambridge and other highly selective universities. It also regularly organises events for Black History Month (see this article to find out more). More widely, following the launch in 2018 of a high profile scholarship programme by musician Stormzy, the University saw a 50% increase in the number of Black British undergraduates admitted to Cambridge in 2020 - dubbed the ‘Stormzy effect’. The Stormzy Scholarship programme was expanded still further in 2021 with a £2 million donation from HSBC.

Dr Orsola Rath Spivack, Cambridge Maths Faculty Admissions Officer who organises the events, thinks that dispelling negative stereotypes about elite universities can go a long way to address the problem. "Cambridge mathematics is very diverse with people from [all sorts of different backgrounds]," she said in a previous interview. "The environment is far more comfortable than people might expect." The 'Stormzy effect', reinforced by the work of Cambridge student ambassadors and widening participation initiatives, shows the positive impact that encouragement and support from inspirational role models can have.

The Mathematics Faculty is also contributing to Black History Month 2021 with an exhibition of posters featuring notable Black alumni, displayed around the Centre for Mathematical Sciences. The University as a whole is celebrating the occasion with a variety of events and activities which you can see here.

The three panellists at the Hidden Figures event all enjoyed their time at Cambridge, which apart from mathematics also featured punting, cycling, and the famous fudge shop opposite King's College. When it comes to the advice they would give to students thinking of studying maths at Cambridge, Igboaka said that a passion for mathematics and willingness to meet a challenge are the prime prerequisites. In Okikiolu's words, if you love mathematics then "Go for it!"