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Black History Month
2023 Honoree

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Sybil Prince Nelson

Sybil Prince Nelson

Assistant Professor

Washington And Lee University

I grew up in a single parent home often taking advantage of public assistance to get by. Going to a university wasn’t a thing in my house or even my neighborhood. I knew more people who had gone to jail than had gone to college. Yet, in still, I was a good student. I loved to read and write stories. I played several instruments and I even got to learn ballet. My mother actually worked out a deal to clean the dance studio in exchange for lessons.

One day in elementary school, I was invited to participate in a summer program at Bethune Cookman College. Not only would I be able to learn math and science every Saturday morning, but they were going to pay me a stipend to do so! During that program, I learned what a quadratic function was and how to solve a quadratic equation. That knowledge made me feel like a rock star. At that point, I knew I had the aptitude for math, but it still wasn’t my favorite thing. I distinctly remember falling asleep in my middle school algebra class so often that the teacher made me stand in the back of the room. When I entered college is when the mathematical stars aligned. The professor of my very first college math course just made the subject come alive and I was in love. I decided then and there that I wanted to do the same thing for the next generation of students.

The accomplishments I am most proud of revolve around my students. Any time I have a student tell me that I changed their mind about math or when they request to do a research project with me is when I am most proud. I am also proud of how I have been able to take my love of music and use it for my research. I was recently able to present my statistical analysis of music at a musicology conference in South Korea.

In my personal life, I am proud of the fact that I have not given up on my other interests. I still love to write and I have published over 20 fiction novels under the names Sybil Nelson and Leslie Dubois.

It has not been an easy road going from poverty to a PhD. I have had setbacks, and failures and discouragement. But one of the things that keeps me going and keeps that fire burning within me is to defy expectation. I am a walking statistical improbability.