Typing on calculator

Nira's story

PhD Mathematics and Statistics, 2014

A more diverse future for mathematics

'When I was in junior school, I loved pressing my calculator buttons so rapidly until the screen flashed at me. I loved Maths but, by the time I reached the end of secondary school, the careers teacher told me Maths was not for me; that I should be a boxer due to my physique. My parents were not pleased when they heard this.  They said I didn’t need anybody’s permission to be a great mathematician. 

I went on to do undergraduate and master degrees. About 6 years after completing my master’s, I met a group called the Conference of African-American Researchers in Mathematical Sciences. One of them said to me that someone with my passion and enthusiasm should do a PhD in mathematics. After a number of rejections, I finally met Professor Andrew Osbaldestin, who would become not just my PhD supervisor but would go on to be Head of the Mathematics Department at University of Portsmouth. I phoned up one day and he invited me down to Portsmouth for an interview. This was the start of a 9-year, part-time PhD! 

A few weeks after I received my PhD, I was named by the Science Council as one of the UK’s Top 100 Scientists; and 6 months later, I became the first black mathematician to feature in the reference book Who’s Who since its establishment in 1849. I later made it on to the Powerlist (100 most influential people of African or African Caribbean heritage in the UK) three years in a row. As well as this, in 2020 I became the President of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications (IMA) - the first black president of a major European Mathematical Learned Society. Over the course of my career, I’ve been a professional mathematical modeller working in the automotive, aerospace, defence, energy and retail sectors, eventually coming to my current role as Principal Consultant for SNC Lavalin Atkins

The media tends not to attribute technical excellence in mathematics to black people, and because of this I would face prejudice. Nevertheless, by moving forward and remembering the words of my parents I break every glass ceiling that is put above me. My hope is that there will be a future where those of BAME origin can work in equal, diverse and inclusive environments that bring out the best in them - and in all of us. At this moment, talent is uniformly distributed but opportunity is not. It is my life’s mission to work for diversity and inclusion, so that opportunity is uniformly distributed. 

My hope is that there will be a future where those of BAME origin can work in equal, diverse and inclusive environments that bring out the best in them - and in all of us.

Nira Chamberlain, PhD Mathematics & Statistics, 2014

There have been positive and negative changes since my journey began - positives such as more allies, more engagement, and more open conversation. The landscape has changed, especially with the rise of social media, and not always in a good way. Systemic racism has not gone away, it has just changed its form. It’s more micro-aggressive, more stealthy, taking place behind closed doors. 

Nobody is born racist; it is a learnt behaviour. When BAME children are still being taunted on the school playground, you know that there is much work yet to be done. I now support a number of access and career initiatives for BAME individuals across the country. Many of these schemes never existed when I was an undergraduate. There is still much work to do, though; and we must all work together to make this world a better place. Getting a PhD from University of Portsmouth was the start of a new chapter of my life and all of the successes that followed. I wish to give back to the University that made it happen. Portsmouth and the welfare of black students are both close to my heart, and that’s why I’m proud to be a contributor to the scholarship and support initiative for black students launched by the University earlier this year. 

A good friend once said to me that in order to make mathematics more diverse, there should be enhanced engagement of black mathematicians at schools, universities, and within industry, at all levels including head teachers, professors and CEOs/board members. As a black mathematician, my mission is not only this, but to make society fairer for everybody no matter what you want to study or who you want to be.'

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