The maths ‘black box’

John Pougué Biyong explains how and why science communication can lead to better diversity.

This post is part of black mathematician month.

It’s only at university that I started to consider mathematics as a possible fully-fledged part of my life. During my second year, in December 2013, the most widespread Ebola disease outbreak in history occurred in west Africa, killing thousands of people. As part of our national exam, my friend and I decided to study the virus propagation. For one year, we modelled the disease spread. From this mathematical model, we determined a vaccine campaign strategy to eradicate the epidemic efficiently.

This first experience of modelling turned out to be way more challenging than what we thought. We were naively thinking that once you get the good spread equation, you can solve it and save millions of people. Eventually, we spent more time meeting up with biologists than solving equations.

A few years later, I worked at the World Bank (Washington DC). There, I tried to quantify the impact of droughts on the food security of the households in Mauritania. In other words, what is the probability for a household to fall into food insecurity in the aftermath of a drought, given its socio-economic characteristics? The idea was to target the most vulnerable families and shape a social safety net for them.

The maths ‘black box’

I keep discovering mathematical applications every week, because they are indefinitely wide. However, the field of mathematics has been suffering from the popular beliefs that it is inaccessible, reserved to certain types of brains and disconnected from reality.

In my opinion, those thoughts are due to the lack of science popularisation. Looking back at my French middle and high-school years, I cannot remember a lecture during where a teacher put a mathematical concept into a more realistic context. As the years went by, the more complex the tools, the fewer the illustrations… when it should actually work the other way around. Consequently, most pupils would lose track of mathematics because it doesn’t speak to them anymore. And maybe it has never done.

As a maths student, I know as a fact that most people do not know what mathematics deals with and what it is for. Back at home, I remember my mother asking me to fix the printer bugs (I am the person studying a STEM field in my family) or my aunt calling me to come and set up the internet box. “That’s what they sent me to school for”, they used to say. Up to now, my childhood friends who have worked full-time for years keep asking me which job I can get with my studies. Lastly, when I meet non-STEM students in Oxford and I say that I study mathematical modelling, a confused expression often appears on their faces.

Many people think that mathematics is all about theorems. Image: Beth Mash, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Representation is key

Therefore, in a context where the mathematics field is neither disseminated well, nor racially diverse nor gender-mixed enough (although way more economically diverse than other fields such as, for example, literature), inspiring Black students to engage in the subject is a challenge.

I have never been taught mathematics by a Black teacher. Although it did not deter me from pursuing high degrees in this field, it surely did for many others. Indeed, back in the day, my friends and I were only exposed to successful Black singers, athletes, sometimes artists, writers and intellectuals but never any Black mathematicians. It certainly impacted the image we had of ourselves. That being said, to me, it is the duty of any Black mathematician to say loud and clear that we exist, that we have been here for a long time and that we are the legacy of a long history, at least from the Black Ancient Egyptians who taught Pythagoras.

Communication is critical

As technology’s impact on our day-to-day lives is increasing on a global scale, all scientific fields are, more than ever, a political force. As a consequence, it is critical for the field of mathematics to bring more diversity to the table so that each opinion can be expressed, and each voice be heard. Therefore, to deconstruct misconceptions, we, mathematicians, must communicate loudly about our work and in an accessible way. Indeed, while approximations and simplifications arise when it comes to applied maths, many people keep thinking that maths is a fully objective science and does not really deal with the real world. In my case, modelling is actually about taking a real-life problem (like disease propagation), translating it into mathematics and using the results to take action in real situations.

To conclude, I would like to emphasise that the professors who inspired me were white and one of them was a woman. I actually should not have to say that because it should not matter, even if it still does. At the end of the day, it is all about passion and love so, until the sun sets, let us keep nurturing ourselves all together.

John is a 23-year-old French-Cameroonian Masters student. Holding two French bachelors (engineering and pure mathematics), he now studies Mathematical Modelling and Scientific Computing at Oxford University.

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