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Black History Month
2021 Honoree

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Olivia Prosper

Olivia Prosper

Assistant Professor

University of Tennessee


Where are you from?

Where I’m from is best explained by first describing where my parents are from. My father was born in Soufrière, Dominica, a small village on its southwest coast and moved to Bradford, England, as a young child.  My mother was also born in a small village, thousands of miles away in Plesder, France – a small rural commune in Brittany.  Both grew up poor, but with parents who valued education.  Through a series of unlikely events, my parents met, and I was born in Echirolles, France, near the city of Grenoble.  Despite their circumstances growing up, my parents went on to be the first in their families to go to college and earn Ph.D.s.  In 1986 an opportunity arose and we moved as a family to the United States. 



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

Science was an ever-present backdrop in my life as a consequence of my father’s career in High Energy Physics (HEP) and living near the Fermi National Accelerator  Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, IL as a young child.  My interests as a child and teenager were primarily in music and writing, but hearing about quarks, bosons, and the stars was a typical part of my homelife.  In college it became clear to me that I was driven to study scientific problems, using the language of mathematics.  In my 20s, I lost two of my paternal aunts to cancer at a very young age.  In a desperate attempt to learn how my developing skillset as a mathematician could be used to impact cancer research, I discovered the field of mathematical biology. I am so grateful to my Ph.D. advisor, Prof. Maia Martcheva, who encouraged me to apply for the Mathematical and Theoretical Biology Institute Summer program in 2009.  This experience coincided with the H1N1 influenza pandemic, and led to my redirection towards mathematical modeling of infectious disease.



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

I have been working with an amazing group of women mathematicians over the last seven years on research related to control measures for malaria.  In 2018, we were awarded a grant by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop models that link within-host Pharmacokinetics and Pharmacodynamics to between-host disease transmission and to study the implications for the spread of anti-microbial resistance.  I’m particularly proud of this accomplishment since I had a three-month-old son at home when I submitted the proposal!  I am also so thrilled with the success of many of the students I have mentored either formally or informally during my career as an assistant professor of mathematics. Recently, I was awarded an NSF CAREER grant, which will afford me many more opportunities to engage undergraduate students in both developing their quantitative skillset, and in promoting quantitative literacy to a broader audience. I am truly excited for what’s to come.



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

I am most proud of my three-year-old and eleven-month-old beautiful sons.  They are the absolute joy of my life and they inspire me to do work that they can be proud of, while also keeping me grounded.



Please share some words of wisdom/inspiration.

Do not let your current circumstances or background define what you can accomplish. A lot can change in one generation.  My parents both grew up very poor, and yet eventually went on to earn their doctorates in Physics and French Literature, respectively, and move to the United States.  As a consequence, my sister and I have grown up with so many opportunities that were unavailable to our parents.  Their hard work has been an inspiration to us and we are privileged to be able now to pass the results of that tenacity on to our children. 


Surround yourself with people who are supportive of your aspirations. Despite the fact that my husband also has a demanding career in the sciences, he has always been my greatest supporter, and is truly an equal partner in all aspects of our lives.