From the Diary of a UofG Future World Changer

From the Diary of a UofG Future World Changer

Sofiat Olaosebikan is completing a computer science PhD on Algorithms for Matching Problems. In this post, she shares her experience of becoming a UofG Future World Changer and planning PWSAfrica, an initiative to empower scientists in Africa with basic computer programming skills.

A couple of years ago, University of Glasgow started the “Future World Changers” (FWC) campaign to celebrate and support the ambitions their current students have to make the world a better place. Since the campaign started, so many students with diverse and fascinating ambitions have been identified. Some of these ambitions include a journey to the South Pole, reforming Scotland’s care system, seeing disability differently, and powering Indian villages using sustainable energy solutions. This is what sets UofG apart from the rest: the university is passionate about helping their students evolve into the change the world needs. And guess what? I am a UofG FWC, and here’s the short story about how I became one.

In 2018, I came across the university’s advert inviting students to apply to become the next FWC. I was struck by one of the captions: “Don’t just get a degree, change the world!” At the time, I was setting up Programming Workshop for Scientists in Africa (PWSAfrica) to empower young scientists in Africa with basic computer programming skills and help them build their programming confidence. My motivation for this initiative was inspired by my strong desire to give back, and my not-so-smooth journey into computer science. During my undergraduate studies in Nigeria, I was always drawn to computer programming, but I did not have access to a support network or someone that could point me in the right direction. It wasn’t until I went for my master’s programme at AIMS Ghana that things turned around for me.

There are so many young scientists in a similar situation in Africa, most of whom shy away from programming because there is no one to help them when they get stuck. For many others, they can’t even begin to comprehend the power of programming as a tool for scientific development, because they are not exposed to it. If these young scientists are not well equipped, what is the fate of Africa’s scientific and technological advancement? This question kept me awake for so many nights. I realised that I have the skills and energy to make a significant impact with PWSAfrica. I was convinced that my initiative met the FWC selection criteria, and a few months after applying, I found out that the selection committee agreed. My initiative was chosen.

Image of Sofiat Olaosebikan holding a 'UofG’ sign.

Over July and August 2018, my team (Benjamin Bumpus, Fatma Elsafoury, Fionnuala Johnson, Tom Wallis) and I visited the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, where we ran the inaugural event of PWSAfrica. At the end of the two-week long workshop (sponsored by the UofG School of Computing Science and the Scottish Informatics for Computer Science Alliance) we were successful in training over 120 participants from different areas of STEM on the fundamentals of Python programming for scientific computing.

Some of the students struggled to get on with the training at first (especially the women), partly because they think that the computer is smarter than them and they are not good enough. One woman was so intimidated that she wouldn’t touch the keyboard, let alone practice coding. We quickly got around this barrier by rewarding them for making mistakes and for asking questions (irrespective of its soundness). This worked incrediby well, they got comfortable with the tutors and we were able to help them build their programming confidence.

It was overwhelming to see how motivated the students were and how much progress they made in two weeks. I was very impressed at the codes many of them came up with to the final group project. I wondered to myself how much more these students could achieve, if only they had a constant access to this form of support.

What caps it all for me is seeing the exciting things that the students are going on to do after their participation in the workshop: taking coding courses online, passing their programming skills to the people around them, working as a software engineer, pursuing a career in data science, and more. For this year, we hope to make even much bigger impact. My team (Alexandrina Pancheva, Benjamin Bumpus, Fionnuala Johnson, Ifeoma Okoh, John Paul, Tom Wallis) and I will be visiting the University of Rwanda in Kigali from 19 – 30 August 2019, where we will again be introducing the participants to the fundamentals of Python programming for scientific computing. The 2019 workshop is sponsored by the UofG School of Computing Science and the UofG Chancellor’s fund.

It’s been very rewarding running PWSAfrica because it has given me the opportunity to nurture a side project while pursuing my PhD. However, the experience is not without its challenges, the obvious one being that it is time consuming. I sometimes have to wake up in the middle of the night to update the workshop website, compose tweets, draft grant applications and email the local organisers. It is hard enough organising a workshop in the UK; it is even harder organising one thousands of miles away in an African institution with hierarchical pulls within the system. I have had to follow up most emails with phone calls, just so we can get things moving faster. With the overwhelming support of my School and my brilliant team members, I persevere… and the impact is worth all of the hard work.

Being able to overcome all of these challenges has also been very reflective for me in terms of identifying my strengths and weaknesses and how to best channel them. This has had a significant positive impact on my PhD. The constant emailing and grant applications has greatly improved my writing skills. The fact that I always have “one million” things on my to-do list helps me manage my time well. The difficulty of getting in touch with local organisers and having to deal with several disappointments has strengthened my resolve. All of these have made me mega-productive with my research, able to publish scientific papers and travel for conferences. I am surprised at how I still find time to go to the gym, watch Netflix (a lot of that), keep in touch with family, and socialise with friends.

I guess for me, running PWSAfrica while doing my PhD shows us that we are capable of so much more than we acknowledge, if only we dare to believe in our abilities and take a chance at something (anything).

I hope my story inspires you to pursue that idea you’ve been avoiding: remember, you can change the world by helping just one person.

Do you have any ideas that can change the world and you need someone to talk to? Or do you have questions about my story? Feel free to comment below or contact me on Twitter @soolaosebikan or my website.

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