Imperial College London

Maths student becomes next rising star


Vanessa Madu with Rare Rising Star award

Vanessa Madu holding her Rare Rising Star award

Maths undergraduate, Vanessa Madu, has been named one of the UK’s Top 10 Rare Rising Stars.

The Rare Rising Stars Awards recognise UK's top ten most outstanding black African and Caribbean university students who are high achievers in their field. This award aims to inspire the next generation and provide access to role models.

In a virtual awards ceremony Vanessa Madu, from the Department of Mathematics, was awarded fourth place for her academic achievements, as well as her dedication towards advocating for young women in STEM, particularly those from underrepresented backgrounds.

Vanessa explains: ‘awards like these are so important, especially after everything that has happened with the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter Movement – demonstrations of black excellence are so helpful right now because it reminds society how meaningful our contributions are and I’m really, really excited and honoured that my work has been an example of that.’ 

Demystifying STEM

This year, as well as being a maths student and undertaking a full-time internship, Vanessa has started two social entrepreneur projects - ProjectInsight and Hello World Hack - both of which aim to unpack and demystify the world of STEM.

‘Women are underrepresented in most STEM subjects; black people are underrepresented in most STEM subjects; people from disadvantaged school backgrounds are underrepresented in most STEM subjects, and I as a half-black woman who went to a school where in its history very few students have graced the floors of Imperial, I have experienced life in the intersection,’ she says.

When I discovered Katherine Johnson, I saw an example of a black female mathematician changing the game and realised that there is no reason why I can't. Vanessa Madu Undergraduate, Department of Mathematics

ProjectInsight aims to provide an insight into STEM careers thereby making them more accessible to young people. In the coming months it will focus on showcasing STEM professionals from minority backgrounds across varied scientific fields, in order for students from underrepresented backgrounds to have access to role models.

Vanessa explains that before coming to university she was concerned about the lack of representation. She was apprehensive about whether she would be seen as the ‘diversity candidate’ or ‘the token black person or token woman’, and questioned whether the culture would be inclusive.

‘Some of those answers were not going to necessarily be easy to hear, and I knew that so I had to spend some time deciding whether or not I was going to let the current state of society stop me,’ she says. ‘My answer to that was ‘absolutely not’, in fact the state of society reminded me just how much the world needed changing.’

‘I've quickly learned that finding a role model who 'looks like me' would be a challenge,’ she continues, ‘but when I discovered Katherine Johnson, I saw an example of a black female mathematician changing the game and realised that there is no reason why I can't.’

Vanessa is a firm believer in the importance of role models. Her advice? ‘Be unapologetically, authentically you; because that’s what the world needs. Yes, you’re different, but with that comes diversity of thought, experiences and so much else, which is far more valuable than you probably realise.’

Advocating for young women 

Vanessa has continued to create opportunities to inspire other young women to pursue STEM subjects. She recently founded Hello World Hack, a hackathon aimed at introducing young girls aged 6-10 to coding, and sparking their interest in the field. To make up for the first event being postponed due to COVID-19, Vanessa put together a virtual version in partnership with Publicis Sapient. The highlight of the first hackathon was, she says, watching a young girl at the awards ceremony proudly share what she achieved during the session: ‘she was so excited and inspired by this new thing she had discovered, and her excitement couldn’t help but inspire me’.

Vanessa is an advocate for young women and in her first year of university, she planned and delivered the London Girls’ Maths event. This outreach event, held at the Department of Mathematics, aimed to reach girls from backgrounds underrepresented on the current Maths undergraduate course. She has also appeared on panels speaking about how to inspire more girls to do STEM subjects by changing the way its taught, including the Stemettes Futures Summit, What Career Live?, and The Future of Women in STEM conference, hosted by Government Events.

What's next? 

Vanessa hopes to develop Hello World Hack by partnering with organisations and institutions to bring technology exposure to different communities, and is looking for a team to help with the relaunch of the ProjectInsight website, to help with everything from interviewing inspiring people, to editing and website design. She will also be doing a talk at the TEDxImperialCollege conference, scheduled for 2021.


Hara Carragher

Hara Carragher
Department of Mathematics

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