The Budding Scientist interviews Aderemi Kuku

On 23 May 2016, The Budding Scientist editor Chigozie Ubani interviewed Aderemi Oluyomi Kuku. We present below a version of an extract from that interview.

On his background:

I came from a very simple background. My father was a photographer by trade and my mother, a trader. My father hails from Ijebu-Ode and was the last born son of Chief Bello Kuku, the Balogun of Ijebu-Ode. Moreover, his mother was a great grand-daughter of Oba Ofiran, the ninth Awujale of Ijebu-Ode. But my father had special pride in training all his children. So, we all went to school. When we were very young, our most senior brother was doing very well in school. He went to Igbobi College and later chose a career in telecommunication and did well. And right now, I have a younger brother who is a Professor of Electronics at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife. And the one older than me (immediate elder brother), who is late now, was an electric technician. What I'm saying, in essence, is that everybody had a career.

On the schools he attended:

My early and middle elementary school education was at Bishop Oluwole Memorial School, Agege, Lagos State. And I had my first school leaving certificate in St. James School, Oke-Odan, Egbado division, Ogun State. I came first in the first school leaving certificate. Thereafter, I gained admission into Eko Boys High School in Lagos, where I led my class from the first year until I eventually became the Senior Prefect (Head Boy) and finished school certificate in 1959. I also did Higher School Certificate (HSC) at Abeokuta Grammar School in Mathematics and Further Mathematics and Physics. That already shows my bias (where I wanted to be). And you see, in secondary school, things were relatively easy for me. In mathematics, if they bring a problem, we would get everything and still struggle with those that say they know geography or history or something else. So that is why we do better overall - because of the way we scored high in mathematics and many other students could not.

After my HSC, I got the African Scholarship Programme of American Universities (ASPAU) to go to US. At the same time, there was a special programme organized by USAID to take some students from West Africa, particularly Nigeria, to Makerere University College in Uganda (East Africa), which was a college of London just like Ibadan used to be. At that time, American degrees did not have much reputation in Nigeria. So, on listening to advice, I went to Makerere and got a British first degree from University of London. After the programme, I was recommended to do research by my Professors at Makerere, and when I came back to Nigeria, I was offered a position as an Assistant Lecturer at the University of Ife (1965). At the same time, I registered for higher degree (masters) at Ibadan.

Luckily for me, my supervisor, Professor Joshua Leslie, who was a well-known mathematician (he got his first degree from University of Chicago in the US and Ph.D. from University of Paris) was just returning from a sabbatical spent as a member of  the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) at Princeton, New Jersey, USA. Again, very few black people have ever been members there, and in fact, even when I became a member of IAS much later, I was still one of the few blacks to go there. But the important thing is that this man had just returned from sabbatical at IAS Princeton, where he met Professor Hyman Bass, who was one of the mathematicians developing the field where I am now. Then he (Leslie) told me, because I was interested in algebra and related mathematics, that there is something new going on at Princeton that if I can produce a dissertation on it that I would be in good shape. So I went to the library (as he was not a specialist in it). Again, that is one unique thing about me.

At Makerere, which was like Ibadan, where you get a London first degree externally, what was unique and difficult about such a system is that your exams are external exams and you have to, apart from being talented, be specially oriented towards passing such exams because the Lecturers in Africa are normally not the same standard as those in London. And secondly, you have to study to pass internal exam from first year to second and third years, but then you have to pass London exam at the end of three years. So we had to juggle around with such situation, and doing well under such circumstance was not very easy. Also, at Makerere, we took what was called Special Honours degree, where very few people are accepted and had to go through a special mathematics programme throughout. (I just mentioned this to show I was already used to studying on my own). So when I got to Ibadan for graduate work, and I had to produce an M.Sc. thesis on a subject that was not the field of my adviser, I had to go to the Library, find out what is going on and produce something - simultaneously with teaching at Ife.

After two years of my being at Ife, I was promoted to Lecturer II, simultaneously with finishing my M.Sc. at Ibadan. Now, when I finished my M.Sc., the external examiner was Professor Hyman Bass of Columbia University, who my Professor had met at IAS Princeton.  After my M.Sc., I got a direct link with him, and as soon as I got my leave at Ibadan, he invited me to come and write my Ph.D. at Columbia University and I completed my Ph.D. in 1971. Meanwhile, the man who got me started at Ibadan had left. He was now in the US at the North Western University. I joined University of Ibadan in 1968 as lecturer II and remained there until I became a Professor in 1982.

On other experiences he had in secondary school that helped form who he is today:

At Eko Boys High School, just as I was doing well academically, my teachers also recognized leadership potentials in me. I was made Senior Prefect of the school (i.e. the Head Boy), and that came with all sorts of responsibilities and experiences with my colleagues. You have to learn to discipline not only your junior colleagues but also your friends who are also your colleagues. That is a tricky point. So, gradually, one got used to leadership

On what made him chose mathematics:

It was a natural choice. I was doing well in most of the subjects, but I found I had special flare for the subject. It was indeed a natural fascination.

On his achievements that should inspire younger generations of scientists and mathematicians:

I am currently President, African Academy of Sciences (AAS) and Distinguished Professor of Mathematics, National Mathematical Centre, Abuja. I was also President, African Mathematical Union (AMU) for nine years (1986-95). I have over 40 years of teaching and research experience at the University level.  I was Professor, Head of Mathematics (1983-86), Dean of Postgraduate School (1986-90), all in University of Ibadan, and at the same time, Chairman of Committee of Deans of Postgraduate Schools in Nigerian Universities.  I was Professor of Mathematics at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP), Trieste, Italy (1995-2003), and William W. S. Clayton Endowed Professor of Mathematics, Grambling State University, Louisiana, USA. I have held many visiting positions at Universities and Research Institutes in the USA, Canada, Europe, Hong Kong, and China including Member, Institute for Advanced Study (IAS),  Princeton, New Jersey, USA; Visiting Research Professor, Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI), Berkeley, California; Visiting Professor, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York; Visiting Professor, Ohio state University, Columbus, OHIO; Visiting Professor, University of Bielefeld, Germany; Visiting Professor, Max Planck Institute, Germany, and others. Moreover, I have given numerous colloquia and seminar lectures and organised numerous conferences, symposia and workshops all over the world.

I have been a recipient of several honours. I am Fellow of the American Mathematical Society (2012-); Fellow of The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS, 1989 -); European Academy of Arts, Science and Humanities (1986-); African Academy of Sciences (AAS, 1986-); Nigerian Academy of sciences (1989, and Secretary, Physical Sciences, 1990-92); and Foreign Fellow, Mongolian Academy of Sciences (2005-); Fellow of the Nigerian Mathematical Society (2015); Fellow of the Mathematical Association of Nigeria (1987), and the Nigerian National Honours: Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON, 2008), and Nigerian National Order of Merit (NNOM, 2009) - the  highest honour in Nigeria for academic excellence awarded by the President of Nigeria.

On factors that enabled him earn these distinctions:

I like to tell young people in Africa that I grew up in Africa like any of them. My background is heavily Nigerian and African. It is not that I spent four or five years abroad trying to get Ph.D. - although it turned out that I have visited the most important places in the world where mathematics is being done. So that shows that the sky is the limit for everybody who aspires.  To imagine that I was a member the Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS) at Princeton, where the office Einstein used to occupy (where Einstein did his seminal work) was just a few doors away from my office. And apart from being a Professor at ICTP, at Trieste, Italy for nine years before I retired from there in 2003, I have been a Visiting Research Professor at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute at Berkeley, USA.  In Europe, I have been to Max Planck Institute in Bonn, Germany and at IHES in Paris. So, what I can say is that there is no limit to where everybody can reach - irrespective of background. That is one lesson everybody has to learn. And of course, doing well means some resilience and focus on some good research programmes.  Even when we were young lecturers, I focused on my research and tried to put my papers where everybody would see them. Again, this is the advice we give to young people, because many people are more interested in quick-fix and in counting numbers of papers. At Ibadan in those days, people were not just counting numbers of papers - emphasis was on quality.  So I would say that everybody has his fate in his own hands. For instance, the way I learnt many of the mathematics I know is not in a fixed way that you can tell people. Because what scares people is the amount of mathematics you have to know to get on with research in such fields. But everybody has his or her own way of acquiring these stuffs that you cannot teach or advise people strictly about especially if you are based in an African University, where there are not many graduate courses available for you to take. Except that if you need to acquire some knowledge, you have to leave what you are doing and go after it. And when you get it, you come back to use it where you want to. But to be frank with you, everybody has to devise his own way of studying these things.

On whether he attributes his success to talent or luck:

Well, you need a bit of everything. But in this business, you need a lot of talent and you need luck too. Like I ran into people who could help me get off the ground, even though I have to ride myself. When I went to write my thesis in Columbia University, I did not have much time to spend there because I had to come back to Ibadan after my study leave. And I remember my wife thanking my supervisor in New York and he said, "Don't thank me, but thank your husband". This is because the man did not really have much time for me because he was an extremely busy and famous man. It was me chasing him around that he should read what I have proved. So, if I was expecting spoon-feeding and so on, it probably would not have worked. So that is why I say it depends on individuals, and a bit of talent and luck.

On how inspiration or insights come to him:

The point is that you have to think about what you are doing. There is no way you can get results without thinking about it. But when the idea or insight will come is what you cannot predict. It may be in the bathroom or on the road. But the truth is: to get anything, your mind must be revolving around it at all the time (or may be intermittently). Even when you give it up, it may suddenly come to you. Sometimes, I will be sleeping in the early hours of the morning and an idea will just hit me on the bed and if I don't wake and write it down, I will lose it. For instance, there is this colleague of mine at University of Chicago. My family was very friendly with him and his wife. So when my wife and I visited their home in Chicago (around 1974 or so), I was told that my friend was in the hospital. So, I felt pity for him, but on the contrary, the wife told me I should not pity the man because that is the only time he could rest. Why? Because they have a blackboard in their bedroom, and when you think the man is sleeping, he is busy working away on something. Well, not many people have blackboards in their bedroom. But this is to show the extent this man went because he did not want to lose good ideas. The point is: there is no way you can fly high without extreme dedication. Some of the ideas people get in mathematics (especially some Fields medalists), one sometimes wonder how they invent them. And when the deep ideas come, they are peculiar to people who invent them, and until they explain it to you, you may never understand it. There are Professors at IAS Princeton (and some other places in the world) that have permanent positions only to spend their time thinking, and these people are producing extraordinary results. This is the result of extreme dedication and talent.

On his other contributions to education in general:

There are about 23 of my publications that are not strictly on mathematics. They are on science, technology, innovation, education and so on.  I have also done some work in popularizing science and mathematics.

On his job as President of the African Academy of Sciences (AAS):

When you aspire to be President of any organization, usually you tell people what your vision and experiences are. People don't just elect you as President. When I was the President of African Mathematical Union (AMU) for nine years (1986-95), there were several ideas I wanted to inject into the scientific realm, some of which have to do with the four commissions I initiated - on History of mathematics, Mathematics Education, Pan-African Mathematics Olympiad, and Women in Mathematics. These commissions have now been replicated for Sciences - African Scientific Heritage, Science education, Pan-African Science Olympiads, and Women in Science in Africa - in the African Academy of Sciences. I also believe that Nigeria had not been involved in the affairs of the AAS even though Nigeria has the largest number of Fellows in the AAS. So, as AAS President, I have been injecting Nigerians into one committee or the other - basically to bring in more Nigerians into the activities of the academy. Also, the structure of AAS has nine specialties and some of these specialties, for example, Health and Medicine, are now big platforms supported by Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, Welcome Trust and United Kingdom DFID (Department of International Development). So what I am doing now is to diversify our activities to other fundamental areas in science that encompass many science areas. For example, the AAS/AMU symposium on "Recent Research Advances in the Mathematical Sciences and Applications together with a pre-symposium School" that we concluded recently at Abuja in Nigeria. We are also building capacity in several research areas - stem cell research, climate change, energy and others.

On his advice to young people in science:

I advise them to be focused. They should find viable research projects that can distinguish them as researchers. They should try to create a niche for themselves in research and put their work in reputable international journals that will be able to promote them and their research. And if they are invited to an International conference, they should try and publish good articles in the proceedings so that they could be invited next time.

Last Updated May 2019