Rising Stars: Brandis Whitfield & Abubakarr Yillah
Brandis Whitfield, PhD Student, Temple University
I was born and raised in Philadelphia, PA. I love my city, so after four years of being known as Brandis at Brandeis while earning my B.A. in mathematics, I returned to Philly get my Ph.D. at Temple University. I feel really fortunate to be a part of my research group and the graduate student community at Temple.
As a black and non-man undergraduate in a PWI, I wasn’t granted the confidence to pursue mathematics—I had to manifest it. I persisted with the major despite being completely isolated in my college math department. In the summer of 2018, I participated in an REU in low-dimensional topology and geometry at ICERM. I went in hyperaware of the prestige of the program, holding a mountain’s worth of imposter syndrome; I left having a sense of what research I wanted to do, feeling confident as a budding mathematician in community with others, and inspired by mathematicians intent on challenging the status quo.
I was a senior in college when I first met a Black math professor. In our first and last conversation, he warned me against studying topology because the field would be ‘too rigorous’ for me. That following summer, I participated in the EDGE program which gifted me desperately needed Black sisterhood in mathematics. It affirmed for me that it was possible to be a mathematician while being my full self.
Audre Lorde has an essay titled “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” that I revisit when I feel stuck. She writes that our silence will not protect us, “the machine will try to grind you into dust anyway, whether or not we speak.” So my advice to you is to speak up when you or someone else has been wronged; they are more afraid of you than you are of them.
Abubakarr Yillah, PhD Student, Texas Tech University
What is your personal and educational background?
I was born in Sierra Leone, but my family moved to The Gambia when I was 10 years old. It was in 6th grade, after I had correctly solved a problem on utility bills that my teacher said to me “I think you have the potential to be good at math” that I started to be interested in math. By 7th grade, I realized how much I was in love with numbers. By my senior year in high school, it was clear that my interests and passions were in the field of mathematics. I hold a B.S. in mathematics from Texas Tech University and I am currently a third-year PhD student at Tech hoping to write my dissertation on numerical PDEs.
Please describe an experience (or 2) that helped you discover/ cultivate your interest in the mathematical sciences.
My interest in the mathematical sciences started during my sophomore year in college. I recall saying enthusiastically to my ODEs professor after determining the time a murder was committed using Newton’s Law of Cooling, that I didn’t care if I had any other problem on the test correct; I was just happy that I solved the murder problem. You can imagine the joy and satisfaction that I felt after using a differential equation to unravel a murder mystery! I am more into PDEs than ODEs, but I like both. In fact, it is their wide range of applications, the number of mysteries I could unravel again, that triggered my research interest in numerical PDEs.
Please share any words of wisdom/inspiration or anything you would like to promote.
Math can be extremely difficult but if there is anything that keeps mathematicians going, it is their passion for the field. So, if you are considering going into mathematics, to you I say, be passionate and always remember that “the only way to learn mathematics is to do mathematics”.