Five women from humble beginnings shared stories about how maths changed their lives for the better, landing them prestigious careers in various sectors.
The women spoke at the annual Women in Mathematics Mini-Convention, held at the Capetonian Hotel by the University of the Western Cape’s Science Learning Centre for Africa (UWC-SLCA), on Wednesday August 25, as part of Women’s Month.
The convention brought together 125 girls from disadvantaged schools across the city who have managed to maintain a reasonable level of achievement in maths as a subject.
The five successful female role models spoke to the pupils about the importance of maths and encouraged them to continue doing pure maths.
Professor Lorna Holtman, director of post-graduate studies at UWC, grew up in District Six but her family was forced to move to the Cape Flats under the apartheid regime.
“My granny taught me to read and count before I went to school. My aunt was the breadwinner and worked hard to support our family. I grew up in poverty but that didn’t stop me from achieving my goals.”
Professor Holtman attended Belhar High School and credits her teachers and the librarian for the role they played in her life.
“No matter where I went or what I studied, maths was always a part of it. I just couldn’t get away from it.”
Dr Erna Blancquaert was the first black South African to obtain a PhD in viticulture from Stellenbosch University. Her love for the vineyards and fascination with the descriptions on bottles of wine began as child growing up in Paarl. Her father worked in the logistics department of Nederburg Wines, and she would often go to work with him. This fascination eventually led her to following a career in viticulture and oenology.
“When I got to matric, I was faced with many questions about my future. At the time, I thought about going into psychology, the medical sector and engineering, but I decided to explore my options and went into the ‘unknown’. I knew I wanted to work outside, get my hands dirty and work with people.”
She encouraged the pupils to work hard and to put in everything while they are at school.
“I was a regular at the library and practised maths continuously. It’s like practising for the Olympics, you need to do it over and over again.”
Dr Natasha Ross moved from Mitchell’s Plain to Hawston at the age of 10, as her mother wanted a safer place for her family. She later moved back to Cape Town to study chemistry at UWC.
“We only had eight pupils in the maths and science class at school, but it opened so many doors for us, giving us different career options. My mother couldn’t afford to pay for tutors, so I had to put in the effort.”
During her matric year, Dr Ross attended the Stellenbosch Winter School, and there she had her “aha moment”, realising that science was for her.
“You have to have a strong background in maths to do chemistry. It took me eight years to get my PhD. It’s difficult in the beginning, but it gets easier,” said Dr Ross.
As a little girl growing up in Khalavha village in Limpopo, Dr Rejoyce Gavhi had big dreams and knew that education was the key to realising them. She obtained her BSc in maths and chemistry at the University of Venda and later completed her PhD at Stellenbosch University. In 2010, she received the Rector’s Award for Succeeding Against the Odds at Stellenbosch University. Dr Gavhi is the founder of MathAfrica, an NPO that aims to improve the quality of maths, science and technology teaching and learning in African disadvantaged and rural communities.
“We saw education as a weapon that we could use to change our community. After matric, I wanted to do electrical engineering, even though I didn’t really know what it was about. When I graduated, I was inspired by those I saw getting capped for their PhD, and I was motivated to study further and that brought me to Cape Town… a little girl from the village.”
Dr Hamieda Parker grew up in Athlone, and while she found maths relatively easy in primary school, this soon changed in high school. But she persevered and obtained a BSc in chemical engineering, an MBA and a PhD in business management at UCT. Dr Parker led the development of a number of innovative products at a large polymer and yarn manufacturing firm.
“I had to do maths and be able to apply it in my work in the chemical engineering and business sector. I took a number of classes which helped me to understand maths and essentially apply it.”
She now lectures at the UCT Graduate School of Business. The maths mini convention, now in its 10th year, was the brainchild of Professor Shaheed Hartley, director of UWC-SLCA.
“The idea is to expose pupils to successful role models in various careers and allow these role models to share their own stories about how maths has impacted their lives,” said Professor Hartley.
“Since establishing the convention, we have heard positive feedback about pupils who have gone into prestigious careers from astronomy to actuarial science.”