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January 11, 2024

A Love of Math Is Just Part of the Equation for Engelberg Fellowship Recipient

Grace Akinwande Engelberg Fellow in front of Claremont Graduate University sign

Grace Akinwande might be the most modest maverick you will ever meet. Soft-spoken. Grateful. Introspective. But talk to her and you will quickly see that she’s determined and resilient—essential attributes when you’re out to change a nation’s mindset and economic trajectory.

“In Nigeria, it’s the general opinion that if you’re doing math, you should be a male because math is a difficult subject,” Akinwande said. “I remember when I told my friends in high school that I wanted to study math in college, they thought I was crazy.”

For almost as long as she can remember, Akinwande has admired the beauty and logic found in numbers and formulas, but her introduction to differential equations during her undergraduate studies proved transformative. (For the uninitiated, a differential equation reveals how a rate of change in one variable is related to other variables. The modern world—everything from determining the spread of a virus to weather forecasting to investment strategies—stands on the shoulders of differential equations.)

“To look at real-life problems and show how they can be solved analytically was really intriguing,” Akinwande said.

CGU recognized that passion in awarding Akinwande an Engelberg Fellowship in the Mathematical Sciences, which honors the memory of Ora Engelberg Percus, a trailblazing mathematician and professor.

“It’s been a beautiful time and challenging as well because I have a lot to learn and a lot of growing to do,” Akinwande said of her first year in the PhD program at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences. “I’m so grateful for the opportunity to be here.”

After she completes her PhD, Akinwande is determined to establish a math institute in Nigeria that welcomes everyone regardless of gender or financial status—an institute whose members will use their newfound expertise in the power of differential equations to improve living conditions in their country. As she explained on her fellowship application, she wants to become a math professor because “I look forward to inspiring preternaturally brilliant and interesting minds to explore this field. … There are a plethora of opportunities to impact humanity.”

She considers the fellowship’s namesake an inspiration.

“I made up my mind to try to live up to the example that Ora Engelberg Percus set, to take her legacy and give it back when I get back to Nigeria,” Akinwande said. “Future generations are going to benefit from what I have been given.”