On the 18th July 2019, I was very honoured and humbled to be awarded an Honorary Doctor of Science (HonDSc) at the University of Greenwich. In the original letter is stated that – The University seeks role models for its students and that my career and achievements to date as a mathematical modeller together with my standing as an inspirational figure in today’s UK mathematical world will be hugely motivational to their mathematics students who will be graduating on the day of my conferment.
The day itself was just totally amazing, one of the best of my mathematical career. Both my wife, Jacqueline and I thorough enjoyed the event, the celebration and the historical grandeur of the University.
In my acceptance speech, I told the new graduates about the Jamaican patois term Tallawah. It means to be:
Very strong-willed, fearless and not to be underestimated or taken lightly
I told the audience to live their lives outside their comfort zone. You have been put on this Earth to solve some serious challenging problems.
The University Orator, Christopher Philpott, delivered this wonderful eulogy:
Dr Nira Chamberlain
Dr Nira Chamberlain is an eminent mathematician who has been named the World’s Most Interesting Mathematician, one of the UK’s top 100 Scientists, the 5th Most Influential Black Person in the UK, and one of the Greatest Scientific Minds to come out of Loughborough University.
A highly talented mathematical modeller and designer of algorithms, he has a joyful ability to open up maths and to explore new frontiers of knowledge on everything from Artificial Intelligence to how well Aston Villa is going to do next season.
Nira was born and raised in Birmingham. His parents moved there from Jamaica, and were instrumental in giving him the confidence to pursue his dreams when school career advisers attempted to slam doors in his face. Even though maths was his strongest subject, he was advised to become a boxer!
It was his dad who told him ‘You don’t need anybody’s permission to be a great mathematician’. These values resonated strongly with someone of Jamaican heritage and paraphrasing his hero Mohammad Ali, Nira’s motto is to ‘Float like butterfly and sting like a Mathematician!’
With his parents’ encouragement Nira began to study hard, and live and breathe mathematics. He says: ‘I soon realised that I may not be exceptionally good in exam conditions, but I was very good at solving real life mathematical problems.’
During his Maths degree as part of a placement on an RAF base, he produced an algorithm to predict how often they should refurbish the kitchen – the answer was 7 years! And so began a career finding answers to problems that others could not.
One of Nira’s mentors was Professor Rudy Horne, an African-American mathematician who challenged and inspired him to do a PhD – to ‘do a PhD’ for his race and background. Rudy advised on the film, Hidden Figures which celebrated the vital role of female mathematicians at NASA, and he inspired Nira to search for stories that had not yet been told. They kept in contact until Rudy’s death.
Nira is proud to be a mathematician, proud to be a black mathematician. He showed great resilience in completing his PhD receiving encouragement from around the world, and vowed to complete it as a role model. He did not see this as burden but a positive challenge.
By finding equations that imitate real-life processes he is able to model virtually anything, whether the economy, a jet engine or a social network. He cites his proudest professional achievement as a model for HMS Queen Elizabeth which convinced the client that the aircraft carrier was affordable and should be built. Somewhere on the ship there is a plaque celebrating his work!
Today he works for the international health food chain Holland and Barrett as Senior Data Scientist. Before that he was Principal Consultant at Babcock International Group which manages complex assets and infrastructure for clients like the Ministry of Defence, and Network Rail.
If that wasn’t enough, Nira is also a regular public speaker. For a keynote talk at the New Scientist Live festival last year, Nira decided to ask: ‘What is the risk of AI takeover and can we calculate this probability? Furthermore, could we come up with a strategy to minimise the probability of an AI takeover?’ At the 11th hour, Nira and his Master’s student Spiros Bogdos managed to model a potential strategy that, you will be pleased to hear, minimised the risk of AI takeover from 80% to a 3% probability!
Nira is a great Champion for maths: it is, he says, a universal and unifying force, the best game that has ever been invented, and one of his greatest missions is to avoid what he calls ‘Mexit’ – the human trait of leaving or giving up on maths! In this sense he is very much a ‘remainer’!
Nira is in a good position to make this a reality. He is now President Designate of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications, the UK’s chartered professional body for mathematicians and one of the UK’s learned societies for mathematics.
Nira’s popular lecture “The Black Heroes of Mathematics”, dedicated to Rudy Horne, is a mission for deserved recognition and has inspired UCL to start a black mathematicians’ month. Nira had also presented this lecture several times at the University of Greenwich and we are very proud of our close association with him.
In recognition of his work, in 2016 he was asked by the Black Cultural Archives to submit his own mathematical biography, parts of which were published in Mathematics Today, and in 2017 he was included on Powerlist, an annual publication celebrating diverse role models for young people of African and African Caribbean heritage.
However, he says the pinnacle of his career happened in 2015, when he became the first black mathematician to be referenced in Who’s Who since its establishment in 1849, and adds, “I achieved this feat through hard work and determination as well as the support of professional organisations”.
Outside of mathematics he is an avid Aston Villa fan, although even they have been subject to one of his algorithms that predicted they would finish 4th with 76 points in 2018. He is a BBC expert voice for local radio on saving Aston Villa and he will be pleased that he has contributed to their return to the premiership. Nira also loves cycling, DC/Marvel comics and is a dedicated Christian.
Nira pays tribute to his wife Jacqueline who has been so important to his life and work, and without whom, he says, he would not be where he is today. In particular Jacqueline, an English teacher, has enabled him to articulate and make sense of his ideas in words.
Nira has a mantra unashamedly borrowed from Rosina Mamokgethi Phakeng, a black, female mathematician and Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, when she says that ‘being the first is nothing to be proud of but a calling to make sure you are not the last’. This captures the life and work of Dr Nira Chamberlain.
It is for Nira’s unique and inspirational contribution to mathematics that we are honoured to make this award today.
And now Chancellor, I have the honour and privilege of presenting to you Dr Nira Chamberlain for conferment of the degree, Honorary Doctor of Science, honaris causa.
The feedback from some students were
“it is inspiring to see him receive his deserved doctorate”
“This proves how much the university takes the engagement of BAME students seriously. I’m personally proud of the achievements of these individuals. They’ve made the BAME community proud and the university stand out.”
The response from social media has just been amazing. I have received congratulations from friends and strangers from all around the World. The views on my LinkedIn page rose by over 1600% !!!
I will never forget this day for a long time. My thanks to the Staff and students from the University of Greenwich.