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Born on May 1, 1981, Oluwatosin Helen Otitoju is perhaps the most decorated young Nigerian her age. At a tender age of 14, she was already the head girl of Queens College, Lagos. She had the second best Junior School Certificate results nationwide and became the overall best in the May/June 1996 Senior School Certificate Examinations. She went on to shatter records at the Howard University, graduating Summa Cum Laude (First Class) in Electrical Engineering and becoming the first ever Howard graduate recipient of the Poincaré Fellowship at the California Institute of Technology for postgraduate studies. In 2004, she received a national merit award (FRM) from the Nigerian government and two years later received the Young Person of the Year Award at The Future Awards 2006. Less than three years later, she had a teaching stint in Yola, Adamawa State, and currently lectures at the Department of Systems Engineering, University of Lagos. An Associate of the Nigeria Leadership Initiative, she holds a Masters degree in Control and Dynamical Systems from Caltech and is the author of Comrade, a collection of poetry published in 2010. She was actively involved in Caltech Theater Arts (2002-2006) as an actress in five full productions, including Molière’s The Misanthrope, Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and As You Like It, and modern works: Inspiration by Iona Morris and Krishna by Sid Jaggi of OASIS. In this exclusive interview with BN Editorial Assistant, Gbenga Awomodu, she shares details about quitting her PhD programme, teaching experience in Nigeria, and her continuous journey of self-discovery and fulfillment in marrying science and the Arts.

Could you briefly describe your journey from primary school to the California Institute of Technology?
After Primary 1, I was promoted to Primary 3 where I was in the 8th position after the first term; 7th after the second; then, after that, I probably remained 1st. My dad was very competitive and wanted me to be the best. There were only two terms in JSSI and when I came 23rd, out of over 300 students, I started crying, like they were going to kill me at home. They didn’t. Then, I moved to the 11th position. In JSS 2, I was 5th, and then there was a turning point: there was a Speech & Prize Giving day, but I couldn’t give my parents the invitation card out of shame. I decided to work towards the next session so I calculated what I needed to top the class. I worked towards it and even overshot it! And the rest is history. I finished secondary school in 1996 and had the best national result in the May/June 1996 SSCE. In June 1996, I took part in the EESI programme sponsored by NASA and entered the Howard University to study Electrical Engineering in 1997. I started working on my PhD in 2001 and got the FRM, a national merit award from the Nigerian government in 2004. I don’t go around thinking about the laurels or letting them get into my head. Maybe that’s good…

Any fond childhood memories?
Running, skipping, and jumping to/from the house on TinCan Island. It was an idyllic place. You know – cooking with sand and leaves, and one time we planned and planned a Christmas concert…

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