He heard about AIMS in the final year of his undergraduate studies in Nigeria. However, he didn’t make it on his first attempt. Currently working as a Macro Fixed Income Strategist at the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank Group, Oyakhilome Wallace Ibhagui of AIMS South Africa 2010 takes us through his time at AIMS and after on this week’s edition of the #AlumoftheWeek.
Q: Tell us about your journey before AIMS.
Oyakhilome: I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in pure mathematics and statistics at the University of Lagos, where I had an excellent undergraduate education. Towards the end of my undergraduate studies, I heard about AIMS for the first time from a classmate who learned about the institute from Wole Solana, an AIMS alumnus. Wole encouraged us to apply and answered our many questions. Unfortunately, the application was unsuccessful. I still kept in touch with Wole and reapplied the following year. I got accepted! I remember getting the good news while at my former workplace as a financial market research assistant. It felt good, so I took the offer. My journey to AIMS started in this manner.
Q: How would you describe your time at AIMS?
Oyakhilome: I chose AIMS because I wanted exposure to financial mathematics. This field of Mathematics had been my mind for graduate studies. AIMS instead broadened my mind beyond financial mathematics. Indeed, I got a chance to take some other very exciting courses, which gave me more exposure, extended my skills and interests, made my profile more competitive, and consequently opened more doors to opportunities.
My time at AIMS was terrific. I met several intelligent people who have excelled in academia and industry beyond AIMS, and we have remained friends to date. I enjoyed the sub-regional cultural day, where students from each sub-region presented their cultures to members of the AIMS community. It was always interesting because everyone (students, staff, visiting researchers, and faculty members) attended the event. In those days, AIMS organized table tennis tournaments in which students, staff, and visiting researchers and faculty members participated. One of my favourite memories was winning gold in both the single and double categories of this competition. The final match for the single category was tough, and I played against a highly skilled opponent and perhaps more talented, but somehow I narrowly won that match. In the end, it was an entertaining match that could have gone to either of us, and I was glad it went in my favour.
Q: Tell us about the impact AIMS has had on you.
Oyakhilome: AIMS stretched my work ethic. The average student spent close to 75 hours per week in the lab (excluding the hours in class) working productively. This was how you complete a myriad of projects and problem sets in a short time. The essay periods were even more intense as midnight felt like daytime in the lab, and students worked round the clock to meet deadlines. I respected my French-speaking colleagues who were developing their English while at the same time completing the barrage of tasks given to students. This attitude was inspiring, raised my level of work ethics (peer effect), and left a lasting positive impact on me.
AIMS paved the way for the other generous scholarships that I was fortunate to enjoy subsequently. The lessons I learned at AIMS contributed to the success of my subsequent graduate studies. The many courses I took at AIMS, which strengthened my overall profile, and the many resources available to students at AIMS, made it possible for me to apply for other postgraduate programs beyond financial mathematics. I was spoilt for choice and would later settle for the quantitative economics postgraduate program in Europe, which I got into economics over a decade ago.
In my current professional job, I work as a fixed income strategist where I use modelling techniques, including those related to my AIMS essay on interest rate modelling, to develop new strategies for managing our diversified fixed income portfolio. The opportunity to learn from serious academics, coupled with access to resources and very high-quality tutors, made a massive difference in my training and development while at AIMS.
Q: What would you describe as your post-AIMS success story?
Oyakhilome: I will highlight two success stories. First, shortly after AIMS, I pursued graduate studies in economics in continental Europe and the UK. My time at AIMS contributed to this success because the training and exposure I received at AIMS increased the strength of my profile which in turn contributed to the multiple scholarships that I enjoyed. I would also say that attending AIMS gave something I would call “success by affiliation.” Several previous AIMS students had done well at institutions around the world, so being a student of AIMS conferred on me the benefit of enjoying this positive goodwill. This essential contribution, I will say, has not been for just me but also anyone who has passed through AIMS and reveals this information on their CVs when applying for opportunities at places where past AIMS students have succeeded.
Second, during my economics Ph.D. in the UK, I received a research grant from AIMS. This grant was instrumental to my success as it enabled me to complete a research project that I was working on at the time. The project involved extending existing non-linear models in a threshold framework to study the patterns and flows of direct investment to Africa and how those flows influence our economic performance given existing economic conditions.
In the next few years, I see myself rising to increased leadership in my career and making one or two contributions to research within my spheres of interest. I have always enjoyed working at the intersection of academia and industry, and I hope to continue along this path.
On a personal front, I have the vision to empower the next generations of Africans who will do cutting-edge research in economics and contribute to the emergence of African Nobel laureates in economics in the long run. Giant steps begin with smaller steps that add up. Through Baum Tenpers, a research group I am affiliated with, we take those small steps by thoughtfully identifying suitable African students, training and mentoring them, and sending them to appropriate graduate programs worldwide. If you place the right people in the right environment and give them the proper exposure, their probability of success will soon converge to the levels that lead to greatness.
Q: Which of the SDGs is most important/relevant to you? How do you plan on addressing it in your work?
Oyakhilome: I am interested in access to Quality Education at all levels. I have been working with local not-for-profit organizations such as Artificial Intelligence and Robotics Laboratory and CHRISTAD Foundation founded by AIMS alumni Kemi and Chika at the primary and secondary levels. The goal is to ignite the passion of teenage students in robotics, advance the learning of mathematics for kids in disadvantaged neighbourhoods and provide scholarships to deserving students and incentives to worthy teachers. I also contribute to the fundraising effort to create high-quality schools for primary school children in the rural parts of India.
At the tertiary level, I work with organizations such as Baum Tenpers and MT Scholarships to mentor African and minority students applying to graduate schools worldwide and fundraise to provide scholarships to undergraduate students studying at institutions in Africa.
The goal of advancing quality education at lower and tertiary levels is something I am passionate about and have pursued for several years now. I plan to continue addressing these issues by continually volunteering my skills and experience and working with organizations and individuals to identify gaps where interventions are required and then support those interventions.
Q: What are your message to current AIMS students and young people across the continent?
Oyakhilome: Opportunities are a game of numbers. All things equal, the more you apply, the greater your chances. So, widen your reach and do not limit yourself to only financial mathematics or data science; there are several other areas where your mathematics training gives you a huge advantage. Find and explore these areas. When you seek opportunities, search for them, go all out, and apply for them. Making ten applications and calling it a day is not enough. The world has changed. Things have become much more competitive. Right from when you join AIMS, identify at least 100 opportunities that match your broad (not restricted) interests, whether graduate school or job opportunities and start applying. Twenty applications per month lead to 100 applications in 5 months. This is very doable (it gets easier and repetitive, assuming five applications per week).
Get familiar with your instructors and tutors for recommendation letters, and reach out to former AIMS alumni. There are more than 2500 AIMS alumni, and a considerable number have a Ph.D. Find them, reach out to them, volunteer to support their research. This way, you will 1) impress somebody and 2) get people who will write recommendation letters to the 100 schools to which you are applying. Be persistent if you experience rejections or challenges along the way. The breakthrough will eventually come.
And when you do get the breakthrough into your desired programs, do all that is within your power to excel and leave a strongly positive impression so that the AIMS students coming after you can leverage the positive affiliation effect you have created to succeed. This is how past reputation leads to future success.