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Black History Month
2023 Honoree

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Abba B. Gumel

Abba B. Gumel

Professor of Mathematics

Michael and Eugenia Brin Endowed E-Nnovate Chair in Mathematics

University of Maryland

Where are you from?

I am from Nigeria, the most populous Black nation on planet earth.


Please describe an experience (or 2) that helped you discover/ cultivate your interest in the mathematical sciences.

I grew up essentially in a family of educators.  As a toddler, an uncle of mine, who was a head school teacher, used to take me to his math (actually arithmetic) class.  I recall sitting or toddling around at the back of his classroom watching him and the students scribbling and discussing numbers and shapes etc.  This experience stayed in my head for quite a long time.  Furthermore, I recall, as a high scholar, going on a group excursion to a local drug manufacturing company, and the manager who was giving us the tour told us that they used mathematics to calculate the correct dosage for various drugs, and how vital this is in ensuring that the dosage level is optimal (below the optimal level, the drug may not be effective and can lead to the development of resistance….. I remember asking what “resistance” was…and dosages above the optimal may cause harm or even prove fatal to the patient).  The last experience, about using mathematics to solve a problem that directly affects humanity, got me really excited about wanting to study more about mathematics.  I had an army of excellent and committed mentors in all levels of my education (primary, high school, college, grad school, and afterward) who greatly helped in shaping and harnessing my outlook and view of mathematics (or career to be more precise).  I am eternally grateful to all of them.  Most of them instilled in me the need to always think critically and creatively, and to always want to see the connections between the concept I am studying at that point in time (in one branch of mathematics) with other branches.  For example, if we are discussing a theory in nonlinear dynamical system, a natural question some of them often ask me is whether or not there is an analogous theory of conjecture in, say, number theory or topology, or linear algebra. 


What is/are your most proud accomplishment(s) in regards to your career in the mathematical sciences?

To be able to use mathematics to provide deep insight and understanding of some of the grand challenges facing mankind, particularly those related to the transmission dynamics and control of emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases.  To work with a diverse collection of students (at all levels… high school, undergrad, grad), postdocs, junior colleagues, collaborators, and mentors from around the world to work on these societal challenges.  To be able to inspire, encourage, nurture, and challenge my mentees to be the best they can possibly be.  My greatest gratifying accomplishment is to actually see my mentees do extremely well.  We do what we do largely for this purpose, in addition to helping to solve some of our major challenges. I am very proud of the students and postdocs I mentored.  They make me proud by their wonderful accomplishments in their respective careers.  I am also thankful for the many awards and recognitions we have won together. 


What is/are your most proud accomplishment(s) in regards to your personal life?

Having a great, supportive, and understanding family and network of friends and collaborators from around the world.


Please share some words of wisdom/inspiration.

Mathematics is the language of the universe. It explains the vast or expansive universe in which we live.  It is the foundation and focal point of all the sciences.  In addition to being extremely vital in helping us explore the frontiers of knowledge and wisdom, it is what is critically needed to help provide solutions to many of the problems facing mankind, in addition to being the bedrock for societies to develop a sustainable knowledge-based economy that is rooted in excellence in science and technology.  I encourage students of mathematics to acquire breadth and depth of mathematics (i.e., have deep knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of all branches of mathematics…. by mathematics, I really mean mathematical sciences…which encompass the theory and applications of mathematics, statistical sciences, and analysis as well as mathematical computation).  I encourage students of mathematics to always ask the why and why-not questions.  I encourage them to focus on the quality and impact of their work, rather than on the quantity of their work or output. Our task is to use the power, beauty, clarity, purity, and elegance of mathematics (i.e., mathematical sciences) to provide insight and understanding of what’s going on around us and to, consequently, help solve many of our grand challenges.  Multidisciplinarity and teamwork are so critical.  The era for mathematicians (and scientists in general) working in silos is (or should be) long gone.  This is because solving our grand challenges necessarily requires the collaborations of mathematicians with scientists from other fields (including the natural, social, and engineering sciences).  Curiosity, patience, and perseverance are also vital ingredients for successful and impactful careers.  To make real world-class impact, one has to be naturally (scientifically)-curious, patient, and be able to persevere setbacks.  Drinking tons of coffee helps too!