The odds were against Thifhelimbilu Singo. Her mother was a domestic worker and a vendor of homemade beer. Her father was a janitor who, like her mother, was uneducated and often unemployed. Her remote South African village had no electricity, and her first school was a wooden shack.
But she fell in love with math and science, and her mother supported her dreams. “Education,” she told her daughter, “is the husband that will never leave you.”
Like many other impoverished African students, Ms. Singo’s path to the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences was always uphill. She had mediocre grades in high school, where good teachers were scarce and classroom discussion was even scarcer. “I wanted to ask questions, but they discouraged you,” she remembers.
She worked hard to gain admission to a provincial university, but soon her parents told her that they couldn’t afford tuition. She cried for a week, hoping for a miracle. Then she heard that someone from her village had raised the money for her costs.
Everything changed when she found good lecturers at the university, earned high marks, and won admission to AIMS. Today, at the age of 28, she is completing her doctorate in nuclear physics, and she has travelled to academic conferences all over the world. She is planning a career in nuclear energy – so that she can help end the electricity shortages that often plague her homeland. It was an AIMS tutor who first suggested it to her during one of the frequent power blackouts.
“Everyone was complaining about the situation, and I was thinking what I could do to help,” she said. “My tutor told me there was a shortage of nuclear physicists in South Africa. I said, ‘I want to contribute.’ When I go home to my village, sometimes there’s no power in the daytime or at night. They have to light candles and cook with fire.”
The key to the success of AIMS, she says, is the interaction with the tutors and professors. “You learn more than you do by sitting quietly,” she says. “The faculty are with us all the time, and everything is in one building. It was a great experience. It inspired us to dream further.”
Last year, Ms. Singo told her life story to 2,000 people at the famed Technology, Entertainment and Design conference in California. She was given a standing ovation – and her speech inspired Google to donate $2-million to AIMS and its Next Einstein Initiative.