Let no failure stop you from dreaming. Guard your mind and brain power. It is yours and yours only.
MAA Member, Dr. Miranda Teboh-Ewungkem, shares her mathematical journey for our Member Spotlight. Although mathematics has always been at her core, there was a time when she wanted to pursue medicine. Continue reading to learn how she continuously persisted in her career in mathematics and inspires others to do the same.
MAA: Can you share your journey into mathematics?
Miranda Teboh-Ewungkem: My path to mathematics, although relatively straightforward, had twists. At the elementary and high school levels, mathematics came naturally to me. I loved the subject matter and enjoyed problem-solving. It was a relatively effortless subject for me. Nonetheless, I didn't plan on being a mathematics major at the university level, even after an excellent performance, earning an A grade on the college entrance exam (A-Levels) typically written at the end of high school.
Medicine was the planned choice for my family and me. However, when I completed my college application, my inclination was to choose mathematics as a first choice, as opposed to biology, my second choice, which would have been a more direct path towards medicine; each applicant had to indicate three possible course major selections with ranks. When the admission decisions came out, I was of course, chosen to major in mathematics, my indicated first choice, and not biology.
My sights were on mathematics, but the pressures dictated medicine. Since medicine was the supposed career path and what was in my head, not my heart, I started attending biology classes as opposed to mathematics classes so as not to fall behind while I commenced formal procedures to switch majors from mathematics to biology. About two weeks later, it was crystal clear that I did not want to be a biology major. I made the move into mathematics smoothly because my formal request to switch majors had not made significant progress through the chain. Thus, I started as a mathematics major about two weeks late, already behind, and about 8-10 weeks after the fall 1993 semester had commenced.
Wait, why 8-10 weeks, and not 2 weeks? I should have mentioned that the year 1993, when we wrote the entrance exam into the university (A-levels), teachers were on strike. That affected the scheduled grading of the A-levels exams, a public exam written by almost all English-speaking high school students. Instead of results being released and published around the normal July-August time frame, the 1993 exams were graded much later, with exams released only in January of 1994. Following the release, we were allotted, I believe, less than two weeks to finalize enrollment procedures into the University of Buea for the 1993-1994 academic year. Moreover, the University of Buea was a relatively new university. Only one batch of enrolled students had successfully completed their first semester. The second batch had two cohorts of students. The first was made up of students who had written their A-levels entrance exams in previous years and were either at home or were transfers from the then-only university in the country, the University of Yaounde, or transfers from other universities from Nigeria. These students, termed the early cohort of the second batch, had commenced with their studies at the university. Those of us who wrote the A-levels that year, 1993, formed the second cohort and started our university journey about 6-8 weeks after the first cohort of the second batch had commenced with classes for just under two months. Our late start was a result of the delay with the publication of our A-level entrance exam results.
Starting in University
My first semester was not the best. Not only was I working to catch up due to the late start, and under a scenario where there were no textbooks available, only notes from other students that you hoped were copied correctly, I became ill during the finals. Without knowing what to expect or what it meant to miss a final exam, I forged forward and attempted to write all my final exams while sick. However, I only succeeded to imperfectly and partially complete four of the final exams written, ending up really sick and being admitted into the hospital for more than 4-5 days. Moreover, I did not perform well in the exams I had written. My GPA was 2.375, an abysmal performance, given that I had always been among the top 1% of my elementary and high school classes.
What was good, however, was that I had actually missed writing all my core mathematics final exams. Moreover, from my midterm grades in these core mathematics courses were very good. I had performed very well, especially in Algebra, and my math professors believed in me. They told me so, which was important, because it gave me confidence. The following semester (spring 1994), I doubled up on my core math classes (approved to do so as I had incompletes in Calculus I and Linear Methods from the first semester), finishing up both Calculus I and II, Linear methods and Abstract algebra with very good grades and with a 3.675/4 GPA, considered excellent, given the grading system in Cameroon. The remainder of the semesters were completed with less drama, except for the fact that I was sick during every end-of-semester final exam, save the last one.
I made it through because I developed the mindset to prepare ahead of time. Thus, I succeeded in writing many of the exams while sick. My only final I wrote while healthy was my last before graduation. It turned out that that semester, my dad, out of caution, instructed me to move back home and commute to school, instead of living in the hostels. That was the only semester I wrote all my finals healthy, and my GPA was a 4.0/4.0. Thus, I graduated with a BS in Mathematics and a minor in computer science from the University of Buea in July of 1996 and did so as the top student in mathematics, with a GPA in the current 2 decimal system that is considered first class. I was also among the top three female students in the university.
In August of 1996, I enrolled in the MS in mathematics program at the University of Buea, a month after graduating with my BS, and before the formal undergraduate graduation ceremony would occur. Only three students were enrolled: two males and myself. As we commenced with the graduate program (with only an MS degree being offered, as there were no PhD programs then) in mathematics at the University of Buea, so too were new faculties that had recently been hired, or who had been teaching for about a year. One of the new faculties (can’t remember how long though) had been tasked to teach us a graduate-level analysis course. His first few weeks of teaching were a nightmare. We heard words like “we were dumb” or statements alluding to the fact we should be able to prove bounded convergence theorem on our own accord without prior instruction; mind you, we had NO TEXTBOOKS at our disposal. All our learning came from what the professors gave us. It was a nightmare!
Moreso, this teacher would walk into class and ask me, the female student, among the three in the class to move to the back of the class and sit there. I cannot recollect the rationale, but I believe it had something to do with his dislike at the time for women. While I obeyed the first few times because I grew up knowing to obey my teachers, I quickly recognized it was intolerable, unacceptable, and interfering with my ability to learn, as I could hardly see the board from where I sat or whenever I sat far from the board. To give it perspective, sitting up front, usually in rows 1 and 2, unless there were no seats available, was my prime location to sit and learn in class. While for me, it kept all the distractions in a large lecture-style class behind me, I also had little choice; I was unable to see the board well, even with my glasses. My glasses were functional but not optimal. I had to squint. Thus, when this professor continued to ask me to move to the back of the class, away from my chosen seat, in a large class of unoccupied desks filled with only three students, I knew this was a recipe for disaster and would lead to my demise in mathematics. Thus, on one of those occasions, I summoned the courage and stormed out of class and to the department head’s office, laying out my complaint and experience with this teacher and class. By the very next class, the matter had been addressed, and it never occurred again.
Nonetheless, the teaching left us desiring textbooks. We could hardly understand the concepts taught. Moreover, class days were filled with insults at our incapabilities. We complained! And again, it would not go unheard. Thus, during our delayed undergraduate graduation, some about 4 months into our MS studies, I received a prize as the top female mathematics student, awarded by the Women in Mathematics group. The prize was a graduate-level Real Analysis Textbook. That textbook, my first official one in Mathematics, was a lifesaver, our go-to guide. My fellow mates and I devoured that text. It is safe to say, we survived, succeeded, and I eventually graduated in July of 1998 with an MS degree in Mathematics, with thesis. My GPA was the highest in Mathematics (grad and undergrad), and also tied as the highest GPA among all students that graduated that year, 1998. My thesis would, later on, form a major root into my research career. I finished the MS having taken real analysis, functional analysis, rings and modules, fields, complex analysis, etc.
During my UB math journey, there was a Lehigh professor, Prof. Edwin Kay, who was a Peace Corps volunteer teaching at the University of Buea. He never taught me, but believed in me, I guess based on my performance. Through him, I heard of Lehigh University, to which I applied. I was admitted and offered the Dean’s fellowship, with no transportation package. At the same time, I was the recipient of the commonwealth scholarship which offered me full tuition, stipend, and transportation to Canada, to go and complete my graduate study in mathematics at the University of British Columbia. Due to the challenges of my then supposedly fiancé being able to join me later in Canada per the advice from the Canadian embassy, a difficulty that was not going to be an issue from talking with experts at the American embassy, I chose the Lehigh option.
Thus, in August of 1998, missing my UB MS graduation, my family, fiancé, and friends, I traveled to Lehigh University to commence the second phase of my graduate education in Mathematics. Despite the cold, change of environment, and being away from loved ones and friends, I cherished the fact that I could easily obtain textbooks to read and had many resources at my disposal. With a master's at hand and my love for learning, I took many classes that would expand my horizon, such as: real analysis, partial differential equations, financial mathematics, statistics, etc., that is, in both pure and applied mathematics. I later graduated from Lehigh University in 2023, earned a second MS, this time in Statistics (January 2003) (since I had obtained an MS in mathematics from the University of Buea), and a PhD in Mathematics/Applied Mathematics in May of 2023.
MAA: How has the MAA impacted you?
Teboh-Ewungkem: The MAA has given me an increased sense of confidence; It allowed me to be freely vulnerable, yet strong in that vulnerability.
MAA: What is the best advice you have ever received?
Math related: Very early on in my career, I wanted to be able to produce perfect answers to all questions posed by students during class. A few times, it took longer and did not help the students much. A senior more experienced colleague told me it was okay to tell my students that I will need to think more about the questions, so that I could then produce the best possible answer, rather than longer round robin answers that instead confused the students. As I grew in my career, I recognized that experience helped a lot with answering some of those questions and how I handled them in class. As a young educator, you want to be perfect. The key should be that you want the students to learn.
My own advice and pep talk to myself: Let no failure stop you from dreaming. Guard your mind and brain power. It is yours and yours only. No one can touch it, unless you allow them to. Make it a choice to guard your mind even amidst challenges and when some subjectively try to tell you that you are not good enough, even though you know otherwise and have the work to show for and back up what your capabilities are, research-wise and teaching-wise.
MAA: What advice would you give to someone who also wants to be a math educator or further their math career?
Teboh-Ewungkem: Go for it. Love it. Be passionate. Ask why and why again. Do not only focus on the “how to”, but the “why” as well. It is enjoyable and fun. The number of kids you will impact is amazing.
Be an advocate for your students amidst educating them. Honestly, ask yourself these questions: What can I offer my students? How can I enable my students to excite learning and successfully bring out their strengths? How can I empower them to think analytically?
MAA: Who inspires you and why?
Teboh-Ewungkem: I have been inspired by various people over the years.
Early on in my career, Prof Trachette Jackson was my inspiration. As a mom with young children at the time, a heavy teaching load and trying to do research in a difficult place, quitting seemed a safe choice. However, I will google Tracy, see how she was doing, enjoy and be awed by her progress and successes; that alone was the boost I needed. It gave me a burst of energy for periods of time. I did this often as I needed those boosters.
When I left Lafayette and Joined Lehigh, by that time, my career and research had grown some. My inspiration became Prof. Zhilan Feng and a group of five women that form what I called the IPT team. These women, whom I still collaborate with, taught me patience and productivity. They inspired me to pick up our work and make contributions. Most of the women are young, having younger children, and it has been fascinating to look back and to appreciate the efforts in the work we do, while managing families.
Now in my life, my inspiration are my kids, my older son, who is a Junior at Harvard, and my 10th grader. Their dedication and drive keep me grounded and energetic, serving as a booster when I do not feel like giving 100% effort.
MAA: What does the MAA Community provide for you?
Teboh-Ewungkem: Community, Network, and Learning.