Fatou Kineh Ndow: From UTG Valedictorian to Pursuing a PhD in Mathematics and Beyond

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By: Awa Conteh 

Welcome to this week’s episode, where we uncover the remarkable journey of resilience, dedication, and triumph in the world of STEM. We shall explore the life of Fatou Kineh Ndow, a passionate mathematician dedicated to breaking gender and societal barriers in STEM. From graduating summa cum laude and as the valedictorian of her class from the University of The Gambia to becoming a Ph.D. candidate in Mathematics at the University of Iowa, Fatou’s story is a testament to the power of determination and unwavering support. Walk with us through her transformative experiences, from her undergraduate days at the University of the Gambia to her current pursuit of understanding synchronization patterns in biological systems.

Fatou Kineh Ndow, a native of Serrekunda in The Gambia, emerged as the eldest child in a Muslim family. Her educational journey commenced in a traditional Quranic school, where she devoted herself to the sacred recitation of the Quran.

Transitioning to formal education, Fatou started at St. Charles Lwanga in FajiKunda, progressing steadily from nursery through 5th grade. Her primary education continued at St. Therese’s Lower Basic School and later at St. Therese’s Upper Basic School, culminating in a 3-year junior education. Success in the Gambia Basic Education Certificate Examination (GABECE) paved the way for her admission to Gambia Methodist Academy.

There, Fatou underwent a demanding 3-year high school program focusing on science. In 2012, she commenced her undergraduate studies at the University of the Gambia with a scholarship from Gambiarising, initially pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Physics. After the first semester, she shifted her major to Mathematics.

Fatou Kineh Ndow, a passionate mathematician dedicated to breaking gender and societal barriers in STEM

During her second year, Fatou achieved a significant milestone by winning a competitive St. Mary’s College of Maryland PEACE program scholarship, allowing her to spend a semester as an exchange student in the United States. This experience provided her with a diverse array of academic and cultural insights.

Despite facing physical challenges and having a modest upbringing as the eldest child, Fatou drew strength from her family’s unwavering love, support, and guidance, particularly her mother. The presence of friends and mentors played a pivotal role in fostering her resilience and motivation.

Fatou’s academic journey at UTG concluded with the highest honors in Mathematics, earning her the distinction of Summa Cum Laude and the privilege of being the valedictorian for the class of 2016. Subsequently, under the guidance of Dr. Assan Sarr and Prof. Pierre Gomez, she pursued a fully funded Master’s in Mathematics at Ohio University.

Currently, in her 5th year as a PhD candidate in Mathematics at the University of Iowa, Fatou’s research focuses on the applications of dynamical systems and differential equations in biology and neuroscience. Her goal is to employ rigorous mathematical techniques, including numerical and computational methods, to model and analyze the synchronization patterns of biological systems.

In her school days, Mathematics and Quantitative Reasoning held a special place in Ms Ndow’s heart. The allure of these subjects persisted throughout her academic journey. It wasn’t until high school that the possibility of majoring in mathematics at the university level became clear to her.

Initially fuelled by the ambition of becoming a medical doctor, she embarked on the Science track during high school. However, the dream took an unexpected turn as her high school results fell short of securing admission to medical school. Undeterred, she pivoted to a major in Physics at the university.

Despite the initial choice, her passion for Mathematics remained steadfast. After the first semester, she followed her heart and switched her major to Mathematics. The dream of being in STEM had always been at the core of her aspirations. 

«My journey in mathematics and STEM began with a genuine love for the subject, nurtured by exceptional teachers who made it fascinating to study. This early passion laid the foundation for my academic pursuits», she told TAT. 

The drive to pursue a PhD in Mathematics, explicitly focusing on dynamical systems and differential equations in biology and neuroscience, stems from a broader perspective. It is grounded in the recognition that, despite significant strides in scientific understanding, the human brain remains less understood than the universe itself. This realization sparked a profound curiosity to explore the intricacies of the brain’s functions using mathematical models for analysis and comparison with experimental data.

 

Furthermore, the alignment of her interests with the work of her advisor played a crucial role in fuelling the decision to delve into this specialized area of research. The synergy between personal passion and the mentorship of an advisor adds depth and purpose to her academic and research journey.

As a Black woman studying mathematics in the US, Fatou faces a distinct sense of isolation despite the less pronounced gender ratio in STEM compared to her experiences in the Gambia. The under-representation of Black or African women in STEM fields contributes to this feeling, as relatable mentors are scarce, making it challenging to find guidance from those who truly understand her experiences.

Being a woman in STEM exposes her to assumptions about her capabilities and commitment based on gender, leading to the need to exert extra effort for recognition compared to her male counterparts. Balancing career ambitions with personal life becomes notably demanding due to these challenges. Despite these obstacles, she considers herself fortunate to have encountered supportive mentors, colleagues, and allies who have played an integral role in her journey. 

“These experiences have shaped my perspective on the crucial need for fostering gender diversity in STEM, and I aspire to be a role model, especially for young Black girls pursuing careers in STEM, contributing to a more inclusive and supportive environment,” she said. 

Ms. Ndow’s dissertation delves into novel insights regarding the synchronization behavior of non-diffusively coupled complex networks. The synchronization within a neuronal network holds crucial importance in facilitating the proper functioning of the brain, influencing activities such as remembering, walking, and sleeping. Understanding this synchronization becomes particularly vital in conditions like Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy, where disruptions can occur.

The research is significant in unraveling the complexities of dynamical systems and the conditions that promote synchronization in biological systems. The primary objective of this study is to investigate how the interactions between neurons impact synchronization patterns within neuronal networks. This exploration explicitly examines the existence, stability, and robustness of these patterns, contributing valuable insights to understanding complex dynamical systems in the context of brain function. 

Embarking on a Ph.D. journey in mathematics presents undeniable challenges, particularly in a field historically dominated by men. Navigating these hurdles has demanded a shift in mindset and the adopting of specific strategies. Despite the persistent struggle with imposter syndrome, she has cultivated trust in her abilities and a belief in herself.

A constant reminder echoes in her journey – the affirmation that she deserves to be where she is and possesses the capability to thrive. The path has been arduous, yet a deep faith in the power of hard work and determination sustains her. This serves as a resounding reminder that, with unwavering perseverance, any goal is within reach.

“I hope these lessons can empower other women pursuing advanced degrees in STEM, showing them that self-belief and resilience can be key factors in overcoming challenges,” she told TAT. 

For aspiring mathematicians and scientists, especially young students, who may be hesitant to enter STEM fields due to perceived difficulty or a lack of representation, Ms. Ndow offers valuable advice. She encourages them to believe in themselves wholeheartedly and consistently work toward their goals. Her journey is compelling proof that with dedication and effort, reaching high levels in the intersection of mathematics and biology is indeed possible for anyone.

Recognizing the importance of representation in fostering diversity and inclusivity in STEM, Fatou Ndow strives to serve as a visible role model as a woman in mathematics. She aims to showcase that women can excel and contribute significantly to mathematical pursuits. She emphasizes the need for proactive steps to create more welcoming environments for women in these fields.

This includes implementing and supporting mentorship programs like the Women in STEM GM, cultivating a culture that promotes inclusivity, and advocating for policies addressing gender disparities. Additionally, she underscores the importance of raising awareness about the achievements of women in mathematics to break down stereotypes and inspire more young women to pursue careers in STEM. 

Reflecting on her academic journey, she recognizes the roles of specific female mentors and role models pivotal to her development. Foremost is her mother, who single-handedly ensured she and her siblings received an education she couldn’t pursue, allowing her to live out her mother’s dream vicariously. She also acknowledges two remarkable women at the University of the Gambia – Professor Kathy Lewis and Mrs. Nafy Aidara – her only female lecturers at UTG. Their presence not only paved the way for her but also instilled the courage to pursue a career in Mathematics. Professor Lewis was a guiding mentor throughout her journey. At the same time, Mrs. Aidara, her Calculus lecturer in the first semester, became a powerful source of inspiration as a young, accomplished Gambian woman excelling in the field. She also thanks her thesis advisor, Dr. Zahra Aminzare, for ongoing support and guidance in her academic pursuits. 

“Overall, mentorship and strong female role models contribute to creating a supportive environment, fostering the growth, development, and success of the next generation of women in STEM,” she said. 

Balancing the demands of academia, research, and personal life poses undeniable challenges, and Ms Ndow approaches it by taking things one day at a time. In addition to her research, she actively engages in activities that bring her joy, keeping her grounded and contributing positively to her physical and mental well-being. This includes regular visits to the gym and daily meditation.

Furthermore, she has discovered support and accountability through friends and colleagues in her PhD program who share a similar journey. Together, they form a vital part of her support system, navigating the challenges of academia while promoting each other’s well-being.

In advocating for supporting and encouraging women to pursue advanced degrees in STEM fields, especially mathematics, our distinguished guest suggests that the government or academic community prioritize initiatives to foster inclusivity. This involves implementing mentorship programs connecting female students with experienced professionals, increasing the visibility of successful women in STEM, and celebrating their achievements. These proactive measures can significantly contribute to creating a more supportive and inclusive environment for women in STEM.

She envisions a future with increased support, focusing on financial resources and mentorship opportunities directed specifically to under-represented academic communities. This involves establishing scholarship programs, grants, and financial aid initiatives designed to cater to individuals from humble backgrounds. Through these initiatives, she hopes for greater inclusivity and accessibility for individuals from diverse backgrounds in academic pursuits. 

“I aspire for my research in mathematical biology to make a substantial contribution to advancing our understanding of the brain. Given the limited comprehension of only a fair percentage of the brain, I hope my work will be crucial in expanding this knowledge base,” she added. 

As we conclude this inspiring episode, we celebrate the extraordinary journey of Fatou Kineh Ndow. Her story echoes the possibilities that emerge when resilience meets opportunity. Fatou has embraced every challenge with grace and determination, from the traditional Quranic school to the dynamic systems and differential equations. Her journey inspires aspiring minds in STEM, proving that with love, support, and an unyielding spirit, one can transcend expectations and create a meaningful impact in academia. We thank Fatou for sharing her journey with us, a journey that illuminates the path for others to follow.

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