Imperial College London

Student Vanessa Madu on winning Women of the Future Award and diversifying STEM


Vanessa Madu with her award at the gala dinner ceremony

Vanessa Madu with her award at the gala dinner ceremony

Maths undergraduate, Vanessa Madu, reflects on how winning a Women of the Future Award last year has impacted her life, encouraging others to apply.

Last year, Vanessa Madu, an undergraduate student from the Department of Mathematics, won a Women of the Future Award. The experience has changed her life: ‘it’s been three months since the award and I don’t resemble myself from before’, she says. ‘I’m significantly more confident, and it’s inspired me to do more of my own thinking as opposed to just regurgitate opinions … to keep moving to make some kind of change, because if we don’t do it, who will?’

Spurred on by the opportunities the win has provided, she’s determined to spread the word about this year’s nomination deadlines – 12 February 2020 for the Asian Women of Achievement Awards and 3 September 2020 for the Women of the Future Awards – and to encourage students and young career researchers from across Imperial to apply. ‘There are people here doing outstanding things that deserve to be recognised in this way, and I can’t speak of the awards highly enough.’

Getting into maths

Vanessa attended an Imperial summer school in 2015, where a student mentor gave her an undergraduate mathematics textbook – this piqued her interest, and support from her schoolteachers subsequently cemented her decision to study the subject. She emphasises, however, had it not been for her teachers unwavering encouragement, she likely wouldn’t have pursued maths, and as a result, may not have found herself exploring the world of coding, computing and technology. She muses on why that might be:

‘There’s significantly less risk in becoming something like a teacher or a doctor or a nurse because you’ve seen them and you know what they do, but an engineer or a software developer, they’re not people that young girls regularly have access to. For young people, unless they’ve put in extensive research, or they know someone who does it, they don’t know about these professions. It’s a big risk to take a degree in a subject where you don’t know what the profession looks like.’

Vanessa made a conscious decision at the start of her degree to challenge the lack of diversity in mathematics – ‘I decided I was going to do everything in my power to change that’. She became involved in outreach projects, including working with the STEMettes, and created her own initiative, Project Insight, interviewing women across STEM professions and ‘asking the kinds of questions that sixteen-year-olds have about what they do, the kinds of experiences they have’.

Getting into tech

Last year Vanessa completed the STEMettes mentoring programme, winning a competition that enabled her to travel to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference in Florida. ‘This is when I started to really get into computing’, she says, ‘I had very little proper exposure [to coding] before coming to university … when I went to this conference, it was women in computing everywhere! That was really eye-opening. There were people there who shared similar life experiences to me even though we were from other sides of the world.’

Exposure at [a] young age is what makes a long-lasting change, as opposed to a last ditch attempt when students are fifteen and we’re realising that they’re not applying for STEM subjects at university. Vanessa Madu Undergraduate student, Department of Mathematics

When she returned to the UK, she resolved to improve STEM engagement with schoolchildren by doing maths outreach in conjunction with her department: ‘exposure at that young age is what makes a long-lasting change, as opposed to a last ditch attempt when students are fifteen and we’re realising that they’re not applying for STEM subjects at university.’

She continues: ‘there’s research that says around the age of eight is when children predetermine what they can and can’t do, so if girls aren’t encountering things like maths and coding properly until they’re fifteen then we’ve messed up.’

Vanessa also began to write a blog sharing her insecurities about tapping into the sometimes impenetrable and intimidating world of tech as a young female student. ‘I had very little tech exposure [prior to uni] so I was slightly technophobic’. All the while, she continued working on improving her public speaking: ‘I really love public speaking, but I wasn’t confident enough at that point to do solo talks, so I was doing panel to sort of work my way up’.

This work was recognised by the Women of the Future panel. Vanessa emphasises that the awards ‘are very holistic, so they look at you very much as a whole person as opposed to just your focus on one subject’.

‘The people in my category were amazing – a jockey who won the Magnolia Cup, another was a girl who got a black belt in karate aged eight, and is now an instructor at her own karate studio aimed at young carers, and another who set up her own events business where she designs and makes her own Disney costumes’. Her nomination, she concludes, ‘was on the basis of a lot of the things that I had been doing since coming to Imperial, because I had started to get the ball moving on the things I was passionate about.’

  • Worldpay's Nichole Viviani, Rising Star winner Vanessa Madu and The Honourable Emily Benn. Picture: Erroll Jones

    Worldpay's Nichole Viviani, Rising Star winner Vanessa Madu and The Honourable Emily Benn. Picture: Erroll Jones

  • Vanessa giving her acceptance speech

    Vanessa giving her acceptance speech

  • Award winners celebrate

    Award winners celebrate

Any advice?

So what advice does she have for those considering making a nomination, either for themselves or on behalf of someone else? ‘For these kinds of things, you have to be your biggest advocate … if you’ve done something great, don’t be afraid to talk well about yourself I guess.’

She continues: ‘even if people aren’t sure, they should definitely just apply! People at Imperial are doing amazing things, but women often water down their achievements and we need to stop doing that. There’s a lot to gain … after the awards there’s a massive emphasis on remaining in the network – lots of events that you might get invited to speak at or attend, and it’s so based in kindness. People have been keen to take me under their wing and I’ve made some really meaningful connections … Sometimes I’ll be on the tube and think about [the gala dinner], it was such a great night. And my department was so good about making it seen … I felt really supported and seen, which was really nice. I’ve been given some really quite incredible opportunities since – things like people messaging me on LinkedIn asking if I’ll speak at their conference – that would never have happened before.’

So, what’s next?

What’s on Vanessa’ radar over the next few months? Lots more talks – including a TEDx talk in June, and another for a Girl Guides STEM activity day ‘on how you can use maths to win games – and why maths is fun basically!’ And she’ll be giving these talks solo – ‘I think ever since the award my confidence has increased because I feel as though people care about the things that I’m doing and what I have to say, so I’m more confident to speak up’. She’s also organising a hackathon towards the end of March with Dr Jackie Bell for around 200 six-ten year-old girls at Imperial’s Queens Tower rooms – ‘so that will be fun!’

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Claudia Cannon

Claudia Cannon
Faculty of Natural Sciences

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