Dr. Dephney Mathebula uses mathematics to solve medical problems

Dr. Dephney Mathebula is the first South African Woman to obtain a PhD in Mathematics from University of Venda (Univen). She is currently a Mathematics Lecturer at Univen. Dr Mathebula is involved in outreach activities that aim to uplift young people from rural areas to pursue careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). She shared with us about her academic journey, challenges along the way and future prospects.

Please tell us who is Dr. Dephney Mathebula?

I was born and bred in Muyexe Village, Limpopo. I am a second born of Mr Daniel and Mrs Dainah Mathebula. I have 6 sisters, Constance who happens to be my childhood Maths Tutor, Precious, Winnie, Doris, Sagwati and Nyiko.

Tell us about your educational journey.

I started school at Muyexe Primary and matriculated at Hatlani Muyexe High. My tertiary qualifications includes a BSc Degree in Mathematics and Statistics, BSc Honours degree in Mathematics from Univen. I obtained my second BSc Honours degree in Mathematics Biomathematics, Masters in Mathematics Biomathematics from Stellenbosch University and a PhD in Mathematics Biomathematics from Univen. The focus of my PhD research was on modelling the transmission dynamics of infectious diseases such as Malaria, Influenza and Schistosomiasis.

You are recognised as the first South African Woman to obtain a PHD Mathematics. What motivated you to be a Mathematician?

My elder sister, Constance, was my motivation. She had great joy and celebrated whenever she obtained the correct answer in mathematics. We used to do maths excerices from the class room Mathematics text book together. I told myself that one day I want to celebrate like my sister. I was also inspired by excellent teachers in Primary and High School. They were passionate about teaching Mathematics and made everything look simple for us.

My PhD promoter, Prof Garira, inspired me a lot and saw potential in me. I had a dilemma and I did not know whether to do a PhD or to work. But he said to me, “You are still young and I believe you can be a very good PhD candidate.  We do not even have a single South African in our Department who has a PhD. You will be the very first South African to obtain PhD in Mathematics at UNIVEN.” Today I am recognised as  the very first South African to obtain a PhD in Mathematics at UNIVEN.

Your field has a lot opportunities but you chose to be a Lecturer and teach, why?

I am passionate about developing and promoting young Mathematicians. Teaching allows me to directly influence young people and share my knowledge with them. I aspire to be an established researcher with my own research group where I will be promoting more young people to be like me. I have already started supervising a number of post-graduates students. My very first postgraduate student graduated last year and the other two graduated this year.

What are challenges of being a Lecturer?

People still believe that women cannot excel in Mathematics and the stigma is great in academia. We constantly have to show our credentials to be taken seriously. However, I always take this as a motivation to prove the sceptics wrong and grow as an academic.

Mathematics is stigmatised as a difficult subject and as a country and society at large, are we improving?

Mathematics is not a difficult subject. The problem is the attitude many people have against it. It is fun and applicable in many areas in our lives and if taught well, many people will appreciate its value. I do not see any improvement and it is becoming worse. Politicians should let Mathematicians to lead the campaign to improve the standard of Mathematics in our country. Till then, nothing will change.

You are a young person, a Doctor and a Leader. How are people around you responding to you?

People are highly inspired by my story. Many realise that greatness is achieved through hard work and it matter not where you come from. I am honest to myself and the people around me and this helps me to get appropriate assistance whenever I have challenges.

Tell us about your involvement with community work.

My work is to provide young people with career guidance, higher learning institutions’ admission applications and bursary applications. I also sponsor those who cannot afford travelling and accommodation expenses during the registration. Bursaries start paying when the student is registered and many students struggle with registration.

What would you do if you were a Minister of Education?

Fixing education is a complex and requires a holistic approach. My point of departure will be to ensure Teachers receive proper training, better salaries and good working conditions. My department will sponsor Mathematics Teachers to visit and learn from other schools that are doing well like schools in Japan.

What advice do you have for young people aspiring to be in Academia?

“Never ignore what your heart pumps for. Build your career around your lifestyle, not your lifestyle around your career.” Spirit Science

Photo Courtesy of University of Venda

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