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YU News

Math Ph.D. Candidate One of Only 30 Young Researchers Invited to Prestigious Forum

Seated left to right are Laura Stegner, Roseline Ogundokun, Katz School Ph.D. candidate Samuel Akingbade and Kessel Okinga. Standing beside his wife, Leslie Valiant, a Heidelberg Laureate, 1986 Nevanlinna Prize winner and 2010 ACM A.M. Turing Award winner.

By Dave DeFusco

During a recent gathering of several hundred mathematicians and computer scientists at the prestigious Heidelberg Laureate Forum, Katz School Mathematics Ph.D. candidate Samuel Akingbade felt the symbolic power of being one of only 30 young researchers among the top 200 in the world invited to present his research.

At a special dinner featuring Bavarian cuisine, Akingbade, clad in burgundy attire, proudly if subtly communicated to his colleagues that he is a member of a West African tribe called Yoruba. To his clan 4,000 miles away in Oyo, Nigeria, his selection affirmed their signature pride in educational achievement.

“I was proud to represent my country and my tribe,” he said. “The clothing I wore represents one of our many traditional designs. Traditionally, it’s expected that not only should the top match the trouser, but they should also be made from the same fabric, reflecting our cultural heritage.”

In September, the Heidelberg Laureate Forum convened 200 young mathematicians and computer scientists from all over the world in a relaxed atmosphere designed to encourage scientific exchange and interaction with recipients of the most prestigious awards in the field.

In his talk, Akingbade held forth on the mathematical possibility of continuously capturing energy derived from small amounts of vibration in human and natural activity. Under the guidance of Dr. Marian Gidea, director of the Katz School’s mathematics programs and YU’s associate dean of STEM education and research, he is creating a mathematical model that will try to determine the right amount of outside force on the oscillating beams of energy harvesting devices that would overcome the effects of internal friction, which stops the beams from vibrating.

In addition, Akingbade received a SkyLabs grant that paid for his stay in Heidelberg, a town in southwestern Germany known for the venerable Heidelberg University, founded in the 14th century, where he gave his presentation.

“Being one among the  30 who gave a talk about their work and one of two recipients of the SkyLabs grant are really unprecedented achievements,” said Dr. Gidea.

As a mathematician, Akingbade knew he was treading on hallowed ground. Last century, a Jewish mathematical genius, Emmy Noether, taught at Heidelberg what is now known as Noether’s theorem, which some consider as important as Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Noether, a highly prolific mathematician, was one of few women welcomed in universities in pre-war Germany. For his part, Akingbade is aware that he is a pioneer of sorts himself, given that Black people have received just 1 percent of mathematics doctoral degrees granted over the last decade. He is single-minded, though, in obtaining his Ph.D. next year and becoming an assistant professor of mathematics.

He'll owe that impressive achievement in part to Dr. Gidea, who has checked on him regularly since his first year in the program when Covid isolated students in their dorms and apartments, and to his father, a retired civil servant who excelled in mathematics as a young student, and mother, a deputy registrar at the Federal School of Surveying in his hometown of Oyo.

“Ever since I was a kid, I have had this curiosity for solving complex problems. I don’t like it when things are too easy to see,” said Akingbade. “I’m grateful to my parents because they supported me during my undergraduate years when everyone was going into computer science. For them to allow me to go in a different direction meant a lot to me. Mathematics is what I love. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”