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Let maths solve the problem

- Wits University

The DST/NRF Centre of Excellence in Mathematical and Statistical Sciences is leading the charge.

South Africa is not in a strong position when it comes to mathematical expertise.

The Centre, inaugurated in 2014 under the directorship of Professor Fazal Mahomed, was established to bring together Mathematical and Statistical Sciences researchers from institutions across South Africa in order to focus on advancing disciplinary and cross-disciplinary research as well as to develop national capacity in these scarce fields.

The Centre currently involves 14 institutions from across the country.

“We can hopefully advance research in the areas that we represent in the country and acquire more PhDs, thereby obtaining a critical mass of researchers in the Mathematical and Statistical Sciences,” says Mahomed.

The average number of PhDs in Statistics departments at institutions in the country currently lies at a dangerous level.

“We need to drastically develop more statisticians as well as more mathematical scientists in general,” adds Mahomed.

Since its inception, the Centre has launched various programmes and workshops to attract more academics and postgraduate students to the mathematical sciences, while also being concerned with increasing the skills of mathematics educators.

“Mathematics education is fundamental. If our kids in school do not have a good basis in mathematics, we are in serious trouble. We need to interrogate how mathematics is taught or else our children will always have to play catch-up,” he explains.

The Centre specialises in pure and applied mathematics as well as statistics and computer science.

The Centre also looks for opportunities to network with experts across the globe to work on real world challenges that the country and local industry face - such as rhino poaching, climate change and dealing with the expected big data of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA)- with the added aim of inspiring younger mathematical scientists to become actively involved in these projects.

“It is very exciting to work as a mathematical scientist at the moment, especially in South Africa,” says Mahomed.

“However, we need many more mathematical scientists to become involved in climate change issues and to focus on working on the mathematical models that arise nationally to help solve our problems.”

Inspired in his mathematical thinking by his grandfather and father at a pre-school age, Mahomed himself has built a distinguished career as a mathematician, publishing widely and serving as a supervisor to a number of postgraduate students.

“Mathematics is the backbone of science and therefore development and the future of the country relies heavily on increasing the mathematical ability of our people,” he says.

“Mathematics is becoming increasingly important in the world, especially for a developing country such as South Africa and the Centre will play a very important role in developing our country in the next few years.”