Doing the numbers
The practical application of mathematics is not always evident at first glance, but take a deeper look and you might find a mathematician behind the technology you are using. Photo editing apps are prime examples.
If you want to scale a photo down in pixel size, all you have to do is open that image in an appropriate app and in just a few clicks you can have the image rendered to the exact size you want. Under the hood of the software though, many algorithms need to be determined at lightning speed to get the job done.
As with many things, the ease of use experienced by an app user represents the hard work and technical ability that went into producing it. Dr Inger Fabris-Rotelli has intimate knowledge of what the app developers might have gone through. She herself worked on image and video-processing algorithms for her Masters and PhD studies.
“I started on the development of the algorithm operators known as LULU during my Masters studies harnessing the powers of the Discrete Pulse Transform (DPT),” Inger said.
Inger loved the multi-disciplinary aspect of her Masters and PhD, having to combine mathematics, computer science and statistics, as well as the challenges of having to find solutions to problems she encountered.
“The answers don’t always materialise, sometimes you have to take a step back from the direction you are going in and try approach it from a different angle before the answer will come to you.”
It was much the same for Inger in her personal life. She always knew that she wanted to be a scientist of sorts and upon matriculating managed to narrow that down to mathematics. She took a ‘gap year’ and studied six modules of mathematics and physics at UNISA to determine the correct study path.
It was not until she went to an open day at the University of Pretoria that she realised that she could do a BSc in Applied Mathematics, which focused solely on mathematics.
“I didn’t like science and physics and up until that moment I had thought that I would have to take those subjects too. I was overjoyed when I found out I could concentrate solely on mathematics.”
She initially enrolled for pure enjoyment with no career plan in mind. In 2004, however, she was asked by the then Head of the Department of Statistics, Prof Nico Crowther, to join the department, which she did.
“I have simply never left as it is a great department to be in and a rewarding, exciting job. It opened my eyes to the wonders of an academic life and made me realise that I have no desire to enter the corporate job market.”
At the time of joining the Statistics Department as a Junior Lecturer, Inger had completed her Honours in Applied Mathematics and was busy completing her Honours in Mathematical Statistics.
She is now a Senior Lecturer giving classes to third year and Honours students, as well as coordinating the postgraduate degrees within the department. She is currently supervising a number of Honours students and Masters students, each of whom are looking at a different application of the theory of LULU that she developed, and also the implementation of spatial statistics in image processing, amongst other topics.
“I love contributing to the enlightenment of students from undergraduate into their postgraduate studies and providing them with the right setting to conduct research – especially students who maybe didn’t do well at undergraduate level but clearly have the potential.”
Inger said some students just need someone to take a bit of interest in them and the time out to show them how things are done in order to set them on the path to success.
Part of her portfolio is to give a portion of her NRF grant money as bursaries to deserving students or those students whom she thinks have potential to add to her research efforts.
“I also look at their work ethic and the attitude that goes with it and also whether or not they financially need the assistance or not.”
A concern for Inger is the fact that not enough bursaries are available for promising students. Once a student has completed the undergraduate studies in a mathematical statistics course, they become highly sought after by the corporate world. Many opt for the lure of the money as opposed to taking their studies further.
This is especially the case with students who come from previously disadvantaged backgrounds who quite often are the first in their family to get an education and are expected to financially support their families.
“We often get asked why there are not more black students at postgraduate level. Are they not being given bursaries? The answer is yes, they are given bursaries. But in most cases only one that will cover either their fees or part of their living expenses, not both.”
This puts these students at the disadvantage of having to work part time just to make ends meet and with the added pressure and the lure of a corporate salary it is obvious why so few stay beyond their Honours year, let alone a Masters or PhD.
In an attempt to try and remedy this, the Statistics Department runs a consultation service to industry and the money generated from this is used towards giving deserving students bursaries. The ultimate hope is that they will eventually graduate with a doctorate and then stay on at the university as a lecturer. Academic statistics in South Africa is under threat due to a limited number of academic staff.
“For those learners who might be considering a career in the mathematical field, getting good mathematics and science results will open the doors to any BSc course. A minimum of a B in mathematics is required for Applied Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics at the University of Pretoria.”
For those interested in working in the insurance industry as an Actuarial Scientist, a minimum of an A in Mathematics is required, as well as a high level of organisational skills and diligence.