“In math, there are so many doorways you can walk through.”

My mom is from the Philippines, my dad is from Kenya, and I’m first generation American.

Photos by Megan Monday

aBa Mbirika | Eau Claire, WI

“My dad was a radically smart guy who grew up in a village without electricity. As a kid he got noticed for his smarts and was given a scholarship to study in London, and then eventually in New York. His academic work earned him titles and prestige; he was even knighted by Pope John Paul for the Knights of Malta. 

 His primary focus in life was to solve the problems of Africa. But that passion work often wasn’t paid, and he didn’t think much about holding down a regular job.

We ended up getting evicted many times when I was young. I remember the fifth or sixth time we were evicted. I got home and there was a chain with a lock across the door. I realize why they did it, but that time was particularly hurtful. We couldn't get in to recover anything.

I grew up on the Upper West Side of New York City, and most of the kids in my neighborhood had parents with different accents. I remember in the summer I would go to work with my mom—she worked in a building near Times Square—and I would hang out at the Radio Shack. There was a free little camp there, like an urban version of summer camp. We did soldering and played with transistors, resistors, and the circuit boards, computer parts. It introduced me to engineering, and I started to take apart things at home. I could always put them back together.

As a teenager, I got accepted to an amazing Jesuit high school. It’s free if you get in, which is great for poor kids like myself, and the goal is to pipeline you to Ivy League schools colleges afterwards. I graduated and got lots of scholarship opportunities, but they weren’t full rides. I went off to college anyway. My parents wanted to send me; it seemed like the right thing to do. But I ended up having to leave the University of Rochester where I was enrolled, because we couldn’t afford the tuition. I just didn’t know then that when my parents couldn’t pay, that the debt would fall on me. I was making decisions about college as an uninformed 18 year old. My student loan from a school I never finished followed me around for quite a while.”

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“I still wanted a degree, so I tried again. I went to community college and paid for classes as I went, out of pocket. Since I was doing education on my own timeline, I never felt like I had much of a community.

Then, a friend came back from a trip and told me, ‘aBa! I found your new home! I just returned from San Francisco, and you’re just the kind of hippie that belongs there.’ I said, ‘But I don’t have any money to move, I only have like 200 bucks.’ She said, ‘You know, that’s enough to start. Everyone takes care of everybody.’

She sent me to the house of a friend of a friend who gave me a couch. After one month, I found five extremely smart, counterculture people that I just fell in love with.

My new friends and I got really into the rave scene. Everyone associates the rave scene with indoor nightclubs and drugs, but there was this alternative rave community in San Francisco. We’d dance at farms or in fields or in abandoned industrial spaces. It was all about love and harmony and leave no trace—a big focus on environmental impact.

I knew nothing about that world when I first moved to California. One day my new roommate, Paul, said, ‘So this month there’s going to be a gathering underneath the Golden Gate Bridge for the full moon.’ I said I’d go with him. But it’s the middle of the night when he wakes me up to go. I said, ‘Paul, it’s past two in the morning!’ He’s like, ‘Yeah—it hasn’t started yet!’

We arrive at the bridge, and then, under the light of the full moon, came one DJ, a few turntables, no lights. Then a very quiet crowd, a couple hundred people. We danced under the moon. We danced till the sun came up. We danced till noon. I remember going to school later that same morning. I was just in this magic land of ‘Wow.’ The whole world looked different to me. It was joyful. I was joyful.

Things got harder later. Money was still a struggle, and I was in and out of community colleges. I was working as a night guard but continued to get evicted.

But all the while, I got really into the music of the rave scene. One day I was listening and realized that the electronic music that I loved was based fundamentally on mathematics. The music, if you haven’t heard it before, is repetitive, but also kind of ancient, shamanic, tribal. I found it transcendent and dream-like. The first time I danced to it—I didn’t even know how to dance—I just did what the music told me. It was so freeing. The music really rocked my universe once I started to pay attention to the patterns. Waveforms make the music, and the music led me to the math. Over time, the mathematics showed me the wonder that I didn’t have yet about the world and about life. I started studying math. I would watch Youtube videos, solving problems on my own.

After a few years, including travel and lots of odd jobs, I finally I decided I had to get serious about math. My obsession compelled me to enroll in college full time again.”

“I had about two years’ worth of credits in from my years of taking classes part time, so I dug in and finished my Bachelor’s. I had to leave my friends in San Francisco to go to college further north, but I found a new little family comprised of all the math nerds at Sonoma State.

I graduated undergrad, but stayed near campus afterwards because I liked it so much. I even continued to audit math classes at the college. Meanwhile, I worked as the manager of a little photocopy shop. I was making $11 an hour, which was the most money that I could imagine, so I was like, ‘This is great! I want to die at this happy store. This is it, man. This is my last job.’

But then, one of my professors said to me, ‘aBa, you're retaking and retaking all of the most advanced-level math classes. We don't have anything more for you here. You know what? There's this thing called grad school.’

I guess I didn’t really even realize that was an option. I never thought about more school, because I didn’t want to go into debt. But then my old professors said the magic word. They said, ‘For high-level mathematics, it’s free.’ Apparently, if you can do high-level mathematics, PhD programs want you with them in hopes you’ll make big advances in the field.

That sounded really great—to do math, to potentially make contributions to the field—so I applied. I got into a lot of graduate programs. They fly you out to show you what the department is like and to entice you to come. Dartmouth in New Hampshire. Tulane in New Orleans. University of South Carolina. They were great schools, but what I realized was there was really no diversity in those programs. Everyone at these schools was white. I was really, really qualified to be in those spaces, but I gotta tell you, I didn’t want to be the one black person there. I didn’t want to be a token.

When I got into Iowa and took the little tour, funnily enough, I saw people like me. Not a lot, but there were three others. This was in 2010, which at that time was the world record year for the number of African Americans that got PhDs in math. That year, that number was 19, and many of them were coming from Iowa.

People are confused because they think Iowa is so homogeneous, like, ‘Why are there black people in the math department of Iowa?’ The answer is because there have been black people in the math department of Iowa! Originally it was due to the foresight of this mathematics professor, Phil Kutzko, to intentionally bring in more people of color. He recruited many Latino students, and I heard that he’d go down south, meet the best black students, and just talk to them about Iowa. A lot of them had never even seen snow. I mean, who’d have thought Iowa? My whole six years there, my mom didn’t even know if it was Ohio, Iowa, or Idaho. Nobody I knew from New York understood.

Once I finished school, I had two options—to apply for a job, or apply for a post-doc. A post-doc is research. They want revolutionary math papers out of you, so you get a paid position to think for three years.

I ended up going to do a post-doc at Bowdoin in Maine. Bowdoin was another place that attracted students of color. Another thing I love about that college is they have a debt-free policy. They don’t want people’s job choices to be influenced by debt. Imagine if students with the highest-level education felt the freedom to do work that would change the world instead of just taking jobs that will pay off their student loans faster?

At Bowdoin, I had a teaching post-doc and I found that I loved teaching. I can really relate to young people. I loved getting invested in their lives. I loved meeting their moms and dads, taking meals with them, answering their emails. At my post-doc I went to graduation every single May because all of my students became family.”

“After my post-doc, I landed a job at UW-Eau Claire!

I had interviews with private liberal arts places too, but they could never be my home. It’s true that there isn’t a ton of racial diversity at UW-Eau Claire, but what I found was, there’s a lot of economic diversity, and that’s really important to me. I came up in community colleges, and then I went to a college that was just like this, regular people. First generation students. There’s a financial diversity that is reflected in students that I relate to a lot better.

10% of the students are students of color here, but the new chancellor is dedicated to increasing the 10% to 20%. I’ve haven’t had a student of color in my upper division classes yet, but that’s a goal of mine. I look forward to the day when I see my first black math major from this school.

Here I teach the 400 levels, and I teach the lower levels. I like teaching the entry level a lot because I try and bring joy to students who have often ‘hated math’ their whole lives. I like to try and take something that was fearful for them, and make it something exciting.

I also love working with the other end of the spectrum, the super-advanced students that do research. UW-Eau Claire was recently ranked in the top three for all undergraduate institutions for research collaboration with faculty. We take all the research students to annual conferences with us, we write papers together, and we have a lot of fun! Every third or fourth meeting, I take them to the pizza place and bring in all the whiteboards. I just want to show Eau Claire that, ‘Hey, we’re going to do math wherever we want!’ And share with the students that math is everywhere.”

“In math, there are so many doorways you can walk through. A lot of students will say, for example, ‘What’s after Calculus Three? Calculus Four? What’s that? What’s after that?’ Well, there’s maybe another hundred classes after calculus, and they’re all really out-there, conceptually.

First you decide which ‘big doorway’ you want to walk through. At UW-Eau Claire, the big doorways are actuarial science, data science, applied mathematics, and pure mathematics. Me, I love pure mathematics. I like the out-there stuff. Pure math is like doing math purely for fun. There’s not always a real-life application. One question I always get when I’m at the pizza place or wherever doing advanced mathematics with a research students is, ‘Well, what’s the point? Eisenstein integers, permutation statistics in the hyperoctahedral group? What’s that useful for?’ I’m like, ‘What do you mean? It’s beautiful. There’s a complex plane, a beautiful lattice, it’s like looking at a painting! It has such deep beauty and meaning.’ The doorways are infinite. There’s so much math to explore.

Right now, outside of school hours, I’m doing a free community seminar on the Riemann hypothesis. It’s one of the seven unsolved math problems, the most important math problems on the planet right now. Institutions offer prizes to solve these problems—this one has a million dollar prize. All I know about this problem is that it’s very hard, and no one knows how to solve it. I was like, ‘Well that sounds fun,’ so I’m teaching a free seminar every Monday night. I have about 15 people from the community and five students from the college. Of the community members, I have a retired professor, a bartender who is really smart, this girl who works at the local co-op. It‘s just this group of people who are excited to learn something new that none of us knew anything about.

I love it in Eau Claire. I already told the old guys at the one bar I go to, I said, ‘Okay, when you die, Steve, I'm taking this chair, and I'm going to sit on it with pride.’ I can see myself becoming one of those old-timers in 20 or 30 years, sitting at the bar, watching the news with some of my friends that I'm growing up with right now.

I could never have said that anywhere else I lived because I knew those were temporary and this is permanent. I am not moving. I guaranteed Eau Claire that, and in my heart, too. I want to lay down roots for the first time—roots with the community around me.”

aBa Mbirika | Eau Claire, WI

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