Wonder Women In Science (WWIS)

Speaking the Language of Mathematics

Dr Hloniphile Sithole Mthethwa, a lecturer in the School of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science, believes that mathematics is a language of its own that we all use daily without realising it, and that, far from being something to fear, it is a language one can become fluent in with enough practice.

From an early age, mathematics came naturally to her, and she would often tackle problems a few grades ahead of her own. She excelled at the subject and pursued scientific subjects at high school, where her teachers Mrs Thandeka Nene and Dr Pinkie Mthembu inspired her passion for mathematics with their own natural gift for their subjects.

Sithole Mthethwa enrolled for a BSc in Applied Mathematics and Statistics at UKZN, and received a scholarship to pursue an Honours focused on Biomathematics at Stellenbosch University, run in conjunction with the African Institute for Mathematical Science in Cape Town.

She was interested in pursuing research in this area that would meet the growing demand for students and researchers with solid mathematical skills for molecular biology, systems biology, bioinformatics, ecology, and biomedical science. She then received a scholarship from the South African Centre for Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis for her Master’s studies.

Following this, Sithole Mthethwa undertook her PhD at UKZN supported by the University Capacity Development Programme. This involved an intensive theoretical study on determining the accuracy and efficiency of recent local linearisation methods combined with spectral techniques for solving boundary value problems.

Her research proved the robustness of the techniques, and the physical results quantified and demonstrated the influence of fluid and surface parameters on the fluid properties, including heat and mass transport. She has achieved four publications in Department of Higher Education and Training accredited journals.

Sithole Mthethwa aims to become a mentor and Professor, nurturing students who will produce meaningful research and achieve exponentially more than she has.

She said that balancing her work and having to go the extra mile to prove herself as a woman is challenging. Despite the historical gender gap at the highest echelons of mathematics, Sithole Mthethwa does not allow this to hinder her, taking inspiration from women like Maryam Mirzakhani, the first female recipient of the prestigious Fields Medal. She believes that all female scientists are “Wonder Women” because it takes dedication to achieve their goals against the odds.

Sithole Mthethwa is a devoted wife, mother of two, and member of the IButho likaMaria legion within her Catholic Church, and works hard to balance these commitments and manage her time well, which she says is helped by her family’s support.

The COVID-19 pandemic has meant that Sithole-Mthethwa not only had to adjust to online teaching, but also missed her PhD graduation ceremony, a major disappointment as she is the first in her family to achieve this distinction and hopes to inspire her students and other prospective scientists. Two of her students graduated with her, Honours student Ms Tsepiso Madondo and Master’s student Ms Nolwazi Nkomo, who graduated cum laude.

Her advice to young women in high school is that they should seek role models and careers beyond what they are exposed to daily and work hard to achieve what they desire.

She believes while many good things are happening in South African science education, there is room for improvement, and points to the need for improvement in the state of science and education at South Africa’s most disadvantaged schools.

A Mathematics Superhero

If she could choose a superpower, Sithole Mthethwa would make sure she could be available anywhere, everywhere and every time to save the next victim of gender-based violence on time.

Her theme song would be “Jerusalema” by Master KG ft. Nomcebo, and her superhero gadget of choice would be one that could eliminate the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) to relieve the mortality and burden of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Her “Avengers” team would include Dr Dephney Mathebula and Ms Sithembile Mthembu, and while deep sleep is Sithole Mthethwa “kryptonite”, her secret hideout would be in her dreams.

Words: Ms Christine Cuénod and Photography: Mr Sashlin Girraj

To commemorate National Science Week and National Women’s Month, the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science is honouring its female scientists through a Wonder Women In Science campaign, highlighting women who are passionate about their fields, who are pioneering innovative research and development, and who are examples to women following in their footsteps towards careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).