What motivated me to pursue a career in mathematics

Audace Dossou-Olory shares the story of his humble beginnings in Benin to pursuing a career in Mathematics together with some useful advice for the next generation of mathematicians.

Illustration by Cayla Basson

I hail from Porto-Novo, the capital city of Benin, and went to primary and secondary schools in Cotonou, the administrative capital of Benin, where I also obtained my scientific Baccalaureate degree with mathematics, physics and chemistry as major subjects. I come from a very modest African family, and I am fortunate that everyone played their role the best way they could in helping me become what I am today.  

My interest in mathematics began during my elementary school time and became very clear in my third year of high school when I was taught plane geometry. I started enjoying mathematics courses more than the other children, and my high school teachers strongly encouraged me to do science. They were my first point of contact before I met Rodrigue Dossou-Cadja, a classmate of mine who also inspired me a lot by what he did and said. At that time, Rodrigue Dossou-Cadja was excellent in all subjects taught in high school and the challenge for me was to surpass him, especially in mathematics. This dream actually became a reality from the second half of my fourth year at high school – I was the only student who always got the highest marks in mathematics from that point on.

For me, mathematics was more than a tool for solving problems. I decided to study mathematics because I wanted to learn a new language and a new way of thinking.  Although none of my parents ever went to university, it did not constitute a barrier for me to make my dream of becoming a mathematics lecturer at university come true. 

I was admitted with a scholarship into the “Ecole Polytechnique d’Abomey-Calavi” (EPAC). It was at EPAC that I fully confirmed and focused my dreams on a career in science and engineering. I was once again privileged to have a lecturer who shared my passion for both mathematics and engineering. He helped me to see that science is beautiful and that mathematical concepts can develop intellectual maturity. With dedication and determination, I graduated almost simultaneously with two degrees: a “Maitrise” in Pure Mathematics and a Design Engineering Diploma in Electrical Energy.

Illustration by Liani Malherbe

I quickly learned that mathematics offers one the advantage of being able to work in a very wide range of practical fields. For example, mathematical knowledge can enable one to work in any unit of companies and factories, in related business fields such as planning engineer responsible for resource planning in enterprises, as purchasing engineer responsible for the procurement of raw materials and supplies in factories, etc. The knowledge of mathematics sets an engineer apart from a technician! As an electrical engineer with a solid mathematical background, I certainly represent the core research and development staff within the profession.

The undergraduate courses also gave me valuable experience and awakened the desire to explore further how mathematics can be used to make a significant contribution in solving the world’s problems. My graduate supervisor in engineering at the time informed me about the mathematical sciences postgraduate program at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) in South Africa, and I made sure I seized the opportunity to apply. I was fortunate enough to be among the 54 African candidates who were selected for the final round of applications, and the only Beninese accepted for the South African center. During my time at AIMS, I developed the ability to voice my opinions and to engage in discussions about scientific topics. Also, with the help of my research supervisor Professor Stephan Wagner, I took advantage of another research need – the use of dynamic programming approach in graph theory to solve extremal problems involving chemical graph invariants. I concluded my Structured Master Degree in mathematical sciences with distinction. 

With the background knowledge I had in mathematics, I strongly felt that a doctoral course with specialisation in combinatorics and extremal graph theory would be very relevant to my practice back in my home country Benin. This led me to study a PhD program in the mathematics division at Stellenbosch University. Although my PhD topic was mostly theoretical and dealt with a structure called “tree”, it turns out that it is related to mathematical biology. Trees are also commonly used by computer scientists in the analysis of algorithms.

For me, the needed requirements to study mathematics are patience, love for it and practice. There is simply no limit on the level of mathematics one will encounter as one goes deeper and deeper into research. However, it is not only the research experience that has driven my desire to do advanced studies in mathematics but also the teaching experience. I have worked as a part-time lecturer and also a teaching assistant of various mathematics subjects and have learned diverse ways of delivering knowledge to the future generation. I sometimes write guest posts about mathematics in layman terms on the shared site https://aperiodical.com/author/audacedossouolory/.  My long term not only dream but destiny is to make a positive impact on society through my knowledge in mathematics and electrical engineering.

I have been a research fellow with the department of mathematics and applied mathematics at the University of Johannesburg since August 2019. Recently, I won one of the two Ibni Prizes 2020, which are awarded every two years under the auspices of, among others, the Mathematical Society of France (SMF) and the Centre International de Mathématiques Pures et Appliquées (CIMPA) to African young talented mathematicians working in West and Central Africa.

My message to the next generation: Do not be afraid of mathematics. It is a core subject that has made new technologies possible!

Dr Audace Dossou-Olory

Postdoctoral researcher Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics University of Johannesburg South Africa

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