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 (WWIS) campaign.

These women are passionate, pioneering and persistent heroines who are advancing science in their own diverse fields. This year’s WWIS candidate from the School of Mathematics, Statistics & Computer Science is Biostatistician and PhD candidate, Ms Nobuhle Mchunu.

Mchunu’s interest in statistics started with card games she played as a child such as Casino and 5 Card Draw. ‘I would quickly calculate in my head the number of cards that had been played and that would guide me towards a winning hand,’ she recalled.

Mchunu enjoyed solving complex mathematical problems in school and that led to her registering for an Applied Mathematics and Statistics degree at UKZN. ‘Statistics provides me with intellectual stimulation as it forces me to think outside the box,’ she said.

In 2018, Mchunu had to overcome several challenges while completing her master’s degree. Her mother passed away unexpectedly, leaving Mchunu with three younger siblings to care for. She then discovered she was pregnant and later gave birth to a baby boy. Despite these challenges, Mchunu still finished her degree on time.

Mchunu is now pursuing a PhD, where her research focuses on the multivariate joint modelling of the longitudinal and time-to-event outcomes in TB-HIV co-infected individuals. ‘I determine the methods of statistical analysis for studies, perform the required analysis of data and present the results of statistical analysis in meaningful formats,’ explains Mchunu.

Mchunu feels her work plays an important role in public health. ‘What I love about this career is that it gives me a chance to do ground-breaking research which contributes to the prevention of infectious diseases and improved public health,’ she said.

She believes that female scientists still face gender bias and are seen as being inferior to their male counterparts. ‘Women constantly have to prove that they are just as good as men, so more must be done to bridge the gender inequality gap,’ she said.

‘Women bring special qualities to this field, including multitasking, hard work and resilience; yet we are still under-represented,’ said Mchunu.

Mchunu nevertheless has encouraging words for budding female scientists. ‘Believe in yourself and your capabilities. You can achieve anything you put your mind to and your background does not determine your future,’ she said.

She wants to be seen a role model. ‘I want to be an example for young girls, especially those from rural areas, by showing that you can achieve anything in life as long you are determined and believe in yourself,’ she said.

Mchunu also feels the way Maths is taught in South Africa needs an overhaul. ‘If we find practical ways to show learners that Maths is more than solving for X and instead how it applies to their lives, we can change negative perceptions about the subject,’ said Mchunu.

An example would be showing learners how statistics can help cure diseases.

Mchunu wants to enter the workforce after completing her PhD next year. She is on track to become only the second Black woman to graduate with a PhD in Statistics at UKZN! No matter how you crunch the numbers, there is a high probability that success is on the cards for Mchunu.

All of our Wonder Women in Science could easily be undercover superheroes, and so here is some inside info on the kind of superhero we’ve found in Nobuhle:   

Q. What would your super power be and why?
A. The ability to go to Heaven anytime I want, to visit all the loved ones I have lost.

Q. What song would be your theme song? 
A. Hero by Mariah Carey, because I believe that we are our own heroes.

Q. What would your superhero gadget be and why?    
A.  A time machine because there is so much I want to achieve in life, but there’s not enough time to do it all.

Q. Who would be in your “all-star team” to take on the world? 
A. My siblings (Sphelele, Nombuso and Mlando) and my son (Lusakhanya) because they are my pillars of strength. I would also include my research supervisors because I’ll be able to solve real-world statistical problems, with them by my side.

Q. Where would your secret lair/ hide out be? 
A. Wherever my son is because he brings so much joy to my heart; or any place where I can binge and watch all my favourite series.  

Q. What is your kryptonite (weakness)? 
A. I am very impatient.


For other inspirational Wonder Women In Science stories, visit: wwis.ukzn.ac.za

Words and Photographs: Sashlin Girraj