Nira Chamberlain, one of the UK’s top 100 scientists, shares his experiences as a black mathematician.
According to Dr Erica Walker’s book Beyond Banneker: Black Mathematicians and the Pursuit of Excellence it is estimated that there are approximately 300 living African-Americans who have a PhD in mathematics. An American columnist once implied that black people are incapable of genius because there has never been a black mathematician who has won the Fields Medal. This is an example of a racial stereotype of all black people, that they can’t excel in mathematics due to their intellectual inferiority.
My name is Nira Chamberlain, I am British born of Jamaican parentage and this is my mathematics story.
You don’t need anybody’s permission to be a great mathematician!
When I was growing up mathematics was my strongest subject, but I never had a passion for it. I did, however, have a dream that one day I would become some type of super mathematician. Nonetheless, my career teacher stated I should become a boxer and my classmates would racially tease me if I ever came top of the class. There were no black mathematical role models for me to be inspired by, just entertainers and sport stars. Despite this, I pursued mathematics through GCSEs, A-levels, degree and finally masters. I was never the best at what I did, but I did enjoy watching great mathematicians solving the most complex of problems. Then, one day I met representatives from the Conference for African-American Researchers in Mathematical Sciences 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. However, 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 parents gave me these rousing words of advice: “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 realised that I may not be good under exam conditions, but I was very good at solving real-life mathematical modelling problems outside academia. I went on to work in France, the Netherlands, Israel and throughout the UK doing the mathematical modelling that others struggled to do.
My proudest professional achievement was the creation of a mathematical cost capability trade-off model for the HMS Queen Elizabeth at a time when the £6.2bn project was still at the computer design stage and the first sheet of steel had yet to be cut. This model, which convinced the client that this prestigious aircraft carrier should indeed be built, not only earned plaudits for my employer but saw myself cited in the American book Encyclopedia of Mathematics & Society – making me one of only a handful of British mathematicians to receive such an accolade.
Returning to academia
However, an incident closer to home led to one of my greatest challenges. When my eldest son was four, his school teacher asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. My son said he wanted to be a mathematician! The school teacher looked at my son and said to him “you will never be a mathematician, but you could become a singer!” On hearing this I decided to become an inspirational mathematical role model for my son by pursuing a PhD in Mathematics and challenging the stereotype that black people can’t excel at mathematics!
I found a supervisor who was willing to supervise me, and my thesis Extension of the gambler’s ruin problem played over networks was undertaken part-time at the University of Portsmouth. This was very challenging, as I was doing this PhD while working full time as a mathematical modelling consultant and raising a young family. Nevertheless, after working very hard, I received my PhD in 2014. In the same year, I was named by the Science Council as one of the UK’s top 100 practising scientists. This was in recognition for developing mathematical modelling applications for industry. More success came in 2015, I became the first black mathematician to be referenced by the UK’s Who’s Who since its establishment in 1849. There are approximately 30 mathematicians in the Who’s Who and they tend to be either presidents of major mathematical societies and/or be some of the top mathematical geniuses in this country. Finally, in 2017, I became one of the vice presidents of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications. I am glad I never followed my careers teacher’s advice to become a boxer and pursued my dream of becoming a professional mathematician and to my son’s school teacher I hope that I showed that mathematics is actually for everybody.
However, I realised that black mathematicians were still very much invisible. Hence, l decided to target as many black community organisations as possible in order to raise the profile of black mathematicians! I produced a PowerPoint presentation: ‘The black heroes of mathematics’, which I put on social media and this received positive reviews from the black as well as the mathematical communities. 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.
- Mathematicians of the African Diaspora
- Administrators of the Benjamin Banneker Memorial
- 100 Great Black Britons
- MacTutor History of Mathematics archive
Originally published in Chalkdust Magazine