Tanniemola Liverpool is a professor of theoretical physics in the School of Mathematics at the University of Bristol. As one of the few black mathematics professors in the UK, and as somebody who helped set up the first access scheme to focus specifically on ethnic minorities, his is an authoritative voice on diversity in academia. We spoke with him in September about his experiences, both as a student and as a professor, and about what he thinks are the most important factors in creating a more representative mathematical community.
Chalkdust: Tell us about how you got to where you are now…
Tanniemola Liverpool: I started out as a physicist. My first degree was natural sciences at Cambridge. When I was doing my A-levels, it was a toss-up whether I was going to study maths or physics, and in the end I went to physics. At the time that I went to university, it was not long after Hawking had released A brief history of time, so that sort of physics was what I found interesting. When I started specialising, I just found statistical mechanics to be really interesting, and basically I decided that that’s what I wanted to do. I looked for PhDs roughly in that area, and stayed on at Cambridge to work with Sam Edwards in the Cavendish. [Before that] I went to a school in Liverpool called the Blue Coat School, which is a charity school. It had entrance exams, a bit like a grammar school, and a very good reputation in Liverpool. The science department was really excellent, with really good teachers, and I think that’s very important.
Setting up an access scheme
Chalkdust: What was your experience as a black student at Cambridge?
Tanniemola: When I was at Cambridge in the early 90s, I was involved in something called the Black Caucus, and also something called the Group to Encourage Ethnic Minority Applicants (GEEMA). This was a group of students who wanted to engage with the colleges about getting more under-represented ethnic minorities into Cambridge, and eventually led to what has now become a standard access scheme. There was under-representation of all ethnic minorities, but particularly African and Caribbean students. It stared with 5 or 6 colleges, and students who were part of it used to visit schools in areas with high levels of ethnic minorities around the country, and encourage people to apply. There was some good take-up from this, and eventually the whole university got involved. Eventually, the colleges started to make offers which reflected the environment and the schools that people came from, and were fairer in that sense. I think this is now standard, but at the time it wasn’t normal.
Chalkdust: Do you think that’s had a positive effect?
Tanniemola: I think that got more ethnic minority applicants to Cambridge and Oxford, but people tended to apply for professional rather than academic subjects. So maths and physics were not seen as a way to a good career, and I think that’s always going to be an issue. Dealing with that has got to be a more long term process, and currently the only thing that I can suggest is that, now access schemes are more or less standard at all universities, it’s probably time that people started to look more at a subject level. Some places could start to look at a particular subject and try to diversify the student body if they find it’s not as it should be. Now, universities have to have systems in place to make sure that their applicants are as representative as possible. Places like Bristol and Cambridge have systems to do that, but I don’t think this is done at a very fine level. You can probably say: let’s look at maths or physics, and try to see if we’re really being fair. I think that getting better statistics is the first step in changing things. I am a scientist after all, so I think you should always look at the numbers and they will tell you where you should go.
The importance of mentors
Chalkdust: Have you ever been discouraged from doing research because of your ethnicity?
Tanniemola: I don’t think in today’s world you’d get a situation where people would say ‘you can’t do it’ or ‘this isn’t for you’. I don’t think that happens. But some people might need more encouragement; they might feel they are not good enough or they might think they don’t fit in. So it’s about encouraging people, saying ‘you should think about this – it might be for you’. I think that’s probably not done enough. The other thing I’d say is that it’s very important to have mentors, who look after people in their careers and guide them to the next stage. That’s something where more could be done, to give people mentors and help them think about what the next stages might be in their career.
Early on, my mentors were my family and my parents. Then as I progressed in my career, I had senior collaborators who became my mentors that I could turn to for advice. But in some sense I had to find them, which required a certain amount of self awareness. Not everybody might have that, and it’s incredibly important for mathematicians to have mentors. This often happens in an ad hoc way, and so we really need to identify people who can act as mentors.
Chalkdust: Are you a mentor for new students, and new black students who want to pursue postgraduate studies or research?
Tanniemola: Yes! I would say that I definitely see myself in that role, and that I try to offer my services as mentor and share my experiences of the academic world. I try to get students from Africa and encourage them to do PhDs in the UK. I have links with some people at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, which has institutes across Africa with the main one being in South Africa, and I’ve been to teach there several times. There’s also the African University of Science and Technology in Nigeria, and I’ve been there to teach and encourage the next generation. I always try to get students to come from there to do PhDs.
I see that as a way to be a mentor, but it doesn’t address the issue [of the under-representation of black students in mathematics] in the UK. That’s something which is harder, and I don’t really know what one does to widen access to postgraduate studies. The problem is that, by the time you get to the final year, and you want to pick people who have done well, the numbers are even smaller. We’re dealing with such small numbers that in some sense it’s much easier for me to go to Africa and get students there, because there’s a bigger pool to choose from.
Final words of advice
Tanniemola: The most important thing is numbers. What happened with GEEMA was that, once we got the numbers and showed them to the university, they had to respond. I think that’s how you change things. Once you have numbers and data, right-thinking people would have to respond.
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