My dream to be a mathematician

Especially students, will enjoy reading this inspiring autobiographical sketch from Dr Andriantiana. The article is a personal reflection that readers may connect with.

Wiida Fourie-Basson

Senior lecturer in the mathematics department at Rhodes university, Dr Andriantiana, shares his inspiring journey to his current dream job. In this article he shares his experiences, starting with his upbringing in a small town in Madagascar to his current role

Illustration by Cayla Basson

I grew up in the south-east of Madagascar in a small town called Vangaindrano, where most of the residents are self-employed traditional farmers. There are not many private companies in the area, but there is a common understanding that studying hard can lead to becoming a teacher, doctor, police officer, or some kind of public administrator.

My father is a primary school teacher, and so was one of my grandfathers. He would often say that all the subjects we study in school are equally important, but occasionally my dad could not hide the fact that he thought that mathematics was more important than the others. For example, almost every time we saw an airplane passing in the sky, he would say that one needed to be strong in mathematics to be a pilot of an aircraft.

I only saw my grandfather rarely, but every time we met, he would tell us inspiring stories of how he overcame difficulties studying during colonisation and whilst being surrounded by people who did not believe in nor understand the purpose of schools. I inherited many books from him, and perhaps his passion for education as well. This was a great advantage for me as there are no bookshops in the village.

All my pre-university studies were conducted at public schools in Vangaindrano. Those schools suffered from a lack of infrastructure and teachers, but they were what my parents could afford at the time for their ten children. I enjoyed every day of school  and always felt liked by my teachers and most of my peers. I also never envied students at private schools, probably because I had no idea how good it felt to study there, although I was aware that private schools had consistently higher pass rates.

My dad followed my studies very closely: when I came home from school I had to report to him first about what went well at school and what did not, and report any marks that I obtained before I could do anything else, such as have my lunch. At higher levels of my study, it became a habit for me to reflect on my studies every day and not to wait for the final examination before realizing that something was wrong. My desire to always provide a good report whenever my dad would ask, kept me focused on and engaged in my studies. He had some serious health issues, and my mom use to say that his condition worsens whenever he is upset, so I always wanted to make him happy.

Illustration by Liani Malherbe

I matriculated in 2002 and started my university studies in 2003 at the University of Fianarantsoa, where I studied a five-year program in teaching and mathematics at the Ecole Normale Superieure. I recall that my dad had hopes of me becoming a pilot, but my dream was to become a researcher because I wanted to solve challenging problems, discover new things and lecture at universities. I also realised early on that I very much enjoyed mathematics because of its precision and rigour. For example, after an exam, I would immediately know whether I have done well or not, unlike with my other courses. I also liked the fact that, whenever I forgot a formula, I was able to retrieve it from the ideas of the proof.  Through the pure mathematics courses I took at university, the true face of mathematics was even further revealed to me: mathematics is not always so much about calculation (the computer can do that!), but more about rigorous reasoning and logic. This was fascinating to me, and I became even more interested in mathematics.

I completed my undergraduate degree in 2007, at the age of 23, and was still keen to fulfil my dream of becoming a mathematics researcher. However, my university did not offer postgraduate studies in mathematics and having to study at a different institution would be too expensive for my family. It then became clear that it was time for me to fly with my own wings in life and I soon began to search the web for opportunities. I also sent numerous e-mails about my situation and my desires to several professors overseas. Most of the replies I received were that they were happy to be my supervisor, but did not have funding. As a plan B, I decided to apply for a job as a teacher at a high-school. At the same time, with the help of several lecturers, I tried to find scholarships. Luckily, a new door opened for me: my application to the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) in Cape Town was successful. AIMS is an institute that attracts young potential African scientists, provide them with a nine-month intensive research and coursework training, and then expose them to multiple opportunities for Masters or PhD studies at various universities in the world. I met a lot of inspiring people there.

After AIMS, I completed my Masters and PhD degrees at Stellenbosch University. Both my theses were in Graph Theory, studying networks of dots (some of which are joined by lines), which can be used to model molecules. My postgraduate studies were certainly among the most exciting times of my life. I also attended several international workshops in different countries, including Switzerland, Germany, Slovenia, Italy and China and met a number of great teachers and researchers. In addition to my supervisor, I also had the privilege of working with other leading experts overseas. Eight of  my research articles were published before completing my PhD. I am now living my dream and work as a researcher and lecturer at Rhodes University.

Dr Eric O Dadah Andriantiana

Senior Lecturer, Department of Mathematics,
RHODES UNIVERSITY, SOUTH AFRICA

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