Pioneer Scholar Spotlight: Tobi

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Spotlight Tobi

“I tend to like things that are a bit hard and challenging, so I like math a lot.”

Pioneer scholar Tobi, from Abuja, Nigeria, is both an artist and a mathematician. She enjoys tie dying, although she says she’s not a very good artist. She is obviously a brilliant mathematician, since her Pioneer Research Program research was published in the prestigious, selective Journal of Integer Sequences.

In fact, Tobi used art as part of her research. Her research concentration involved Fibonacci numbers and tiling proofs, a mathematical concept that can be illustrated as squares or rectangles (dominoes) arranged in a rectangle. Tobi wondered what mathematical formulas might result from tiling a square instead of a rectangle. And she began visually, drawing squares and rectangles in squares of various sizes over pages and pages of notebook paper. Using that work as a beginning, she was able to derive her completely original formulas, making a significant contribution to the field of mathematics.

That sounds like a simpler process than it actually was. When Tobi began her Pioneer Research Program, she found herself confronting completely new material, math of a kind she hadn’t encountered in high school. To catch up, she used the book that her professor had recommended to teach herself the important concepts. “The first time I read it, I would most likely not understand anything,” she said, but she would go over the material multiple times until it made sense to her. Then, as she studied following chapters, something she had already learned would connect with the new concept, and by the time she participated in her group sessions with her cohort, she would be prepared with questions to help her understand more.

Tobi’s research approach was unique in part because she was doing something that hadn’t been done before. When she began to look for other studies on her topic, using the Oberlin database, “I didn’t actually find anything related,” she said. Once her research paper was complete, she checked her results to be sure no one had already done what she had done, since unintentional plagiarizing can happen when working on a math problem that someone else might have tackled as well. But Tobi found that her idea was truly original.

Tobi gives a lot of credit for her success to her family. She’s much younger than her siblings, who have all gone on to higher education. “The last one before me has his Ph.D. from Harvard,” she says. Her mom always pushed Tobi and her siblings to do their best at whatever interested them. This gave Tobi the idea that she should be good at whatever she tried, and the confidence that she could be—even as a young Black woman from Africa in a field that more typically attracts white or Asian men. “Whatever group I find myself in, if I’m not the best, that gives me a unique challenge—not in a bad way, but it a very good way—to try to improve myself.”    

Tobi is about to begin her higher education, perhaps in both math and quantum computing, at Grinnell College in Iowa.

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