‘Scientists are the ones that change the world. While we may see politicians all too often, it is the scientists and researchers that are developing tools and systems that improve people’s lives, advance the human population, and improve our understanding of the universe. Space flight, artificial general intelligence, electric cars, digital tools, advanced weapons and technology, all have the capability to change (advance or destroy) the destiny of human civilisation. To be in that space and to work on solving complex problems is exciting, and to know that you are working towards goals of advancing our understanding of the world around us or improving the life of someone else can be fulfilling.’

These are the words of Dr Ridhwaan Suliman, Senior Researcher at the CSIR and Senior Research Associate at the University of Johannesburg.

‘My expertise and formal training are broadly in applied mathematics and more specifically in computational fluid mechanics and solid mechanics. This involves the development of computational tools to model or simulate physical systems, specifically physical systems where there is a strong interaction between a moving fluid (gas or liquid) and deformable structure. There are numerous examples of such systems all around us: the flutter of an aircraft wing in flight, the flow of blood through our arteries and veins, the flight of a flock of birds, the flapping of a flag on a pole, the swimming pattern of a fish…’

He continues: ‘My work in computational mechanics involves the identification of the relevant physics involved, the mathematical formulation of governing equations, discretisation of the continuous system into a discrete system that can be programmed and solved by a computer, the numerical solution of the system, and validation and verification of results.’

Dr Suliman understands the issues he works on from more than one angle: he was awarded his PhD in Applied Mathematics from the University of Cambridge in 2018, after obtaining an MEng. Mechanical (with distinction) from the University of Pretoria in 2012.

Data, COVID-19 and more
‘Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, my work has been more data-centric, and I’ve been moving more into the space of data science, and data analytics that are used to drive and inform decision making and policy,’ Dr Suliman says.

‘My work on COVID-19 started because I got bored during the initial three-week lockdown period, but also because I wanted to understand, by using the data that was being published daily, whether the data and trends would actually support just the initial three-week lockdown in South Africa. I also found that there were a lot of data and numbers being published daily, but very little insight or story behind these raw numbers. So, I quickly turned the raw numbers into data visualisations that could explain the story. It was clear from the trends that our initial lockdown period was too harsh and too early, and that it would be extended – which it was. As more data and different data parameters became available, I continued to extract and keep track of those, all in my own spare time and in isolation. Once I started sharing these with family and friends, and later on social media, it quickly gained attention and was shared on various platforms.’

He continues: ‘Data is becoming increasingly prevalent and the ability and resources to utilise such data is becoming more accessible. Although data featured prominently during the COVID-19 pandemic, there were clear gaps in the processing and sharing of this data in a useful form for the general public as well as the use of this data to drive the decision-making during the pandemic. Furthermore, the understanding of the limitations and usefulness of datasets is crucial. Mathematicians can and did fill these gaps to some extent, but I feel there could have been an even broader role for mathematicians during this time. And it is not only relevant for COVID-19. As data is becoming increasingly prevalent and accessible, the use thereof to drive decision-making, as well as the clear communication of the data and trends to a broad general audience, is crucial.’

He cites more examples: ‘This approach can and is being used to understand our national electricity crisis, to identify trends and patterns in voting, to identify hotspots and vulnerable areas, to understand a looming water crisis, or even just monitor financial or socio-economic trends.’

From the traditional to new approaches
Dr Suliman says the traditional methods of modelling and simulation ‘seem to be on the decline except for very niche applications. There has been a shift from more traditional modelling and simulation methods to the use of big data and machine learning tools to develop data-driven modelling solutions. I have had no formal training in this area, and it has just been a continuous (often difficult) learning experience.’

He notes it is clear that the abundance of data and the rapid development of machine learning and artificial intelligence tools will continue to change engineering, design and decision-making. ‘Part of my recent roles have also been policy formulation and data-driven solutions for decision making – particularly for government bodies, which has been an entirely new area of work. In addition, the communication of data and scientific results to a general audience has been interesting, refreshing and rewarding.’

He adds: ‘I believe there is always a role to develop the core competencies in mathematics, but the way we use mathematics and the application areas are evolving. We are probably a bit behind in South Africa, but we can see internationally that progress in digitalisation and artificial intelligence is advancing rapidly.’

Inspired by Da Vinci
Dr Suliman ‘chose to study the degrees I did largely because of funding and opportunities at the time.’ However, the adds he has ‘always enjoyed working with numbers from an early age. The subjects of mathematics and science always piqued my interest more than any other subjects. However, I only settled on studying engineering as an undergrad a week before lectures began as I had received a scholarship to study in that field. This pattern continued throughout my studies.’

When he moved abroad for his postgraduate studies, he was ‘particularly motivated by Stephen Hawking, whose office was in the same building as mine. Other prominent and influential scientists included Srinivasa Ramanujan and Leonardo da Vinci.’

He quotes Da Vinci about developing a complete mind: ‘Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses – especially learn how to see. Realise that everything connects to everything else.’

What about the future? Dr Suliman says ‘the exciting part for young scientists to understand is that with all the recent computational advancements we are moving towards a point where the time between the research and the application thereof is rapidly decreasing and we can now start to see the research being applied in real-world applications. The opportunity to make groundbreaking discoveries that can change our understanding of the universe or improve the lives of people, as well as the possibility of seeing that in action, can be rewarding and fulfilling to witness and be part of.’

Interdisciplinary collaboration and NITheCS
He believes ‘interdisciplinary collaboration is crucial, particularly in this day and age. We no longer live in a time when one would spend an entire career working in one specific field or discipline. Interdisciplinary collaboration fosters innovation, bringing together different skills and perspectives to tackle more complex problems. Most real-world problems and current global challenges are complex and cannot be solved within a single discipline, requiring expertise from across multiple fields. Without collaboration the grand challenges facing society today cannot be addressed impactfully and meaningfully.’

‘NITheCS is a platform that allows for the opportunity to collaborate across multiple disciplines and come together and to solve the global challenges facing society today, or even better understand the workings of our universe. The organisation is much-needed, particularly in the South African landscape, which can be isolated. Being a NITheCS Associate has afforded opportunities for networking and collaboration, a space to listen to what others are doing in their areas of work, an opportunity for innovation and creative ideas, opportunities for funding, and mentoring and training of students and future scientists.’