‘Before joining the University of South Africa in 2021 in the Department of Decision Sciences as an Associate Professor, I worked as a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Mathematical and Computational Sciences at the University of Venda (Univen) since 2012. There I gained extensive experience in lecturing and supervising postgraduate students. I also served as an external postgraduate examiner,’ says Prof Dephney Mathebula about the path to her current position.

Hailing from Giyani, Prof Mathebula attended Muyexe Primary School and Hatlani Muyexe High School. Her road to success required perseverance from a young age. She passed Grade 12 in 2000 but had to repeat the grade because she failed mathematics. However, she passed all her subjects in 2001 and her road to university was clear. She enrolled for a BSc degree in Computer Science and Mathematics at Univen in 2002, but later changed course and completed the degree in Mathematics and Statistics in 2008.

Overcoming early stumbles

She worked hard to overcome her early stumbles, and in 2009 obtained her BSc honours in Mathematics at Univen. In 2010 she obtained an MSc in Mathematics (sponsored by the NRF) at Stellenbosch University. Then she enrolled for a PhD in Mathematics (again sponsored by NRF) at Univen.

‘In 2018, I became the first South African to obtain a PhD in Mathematics at Univen. It took me 29 years to reach the apex of my education—and it was all worth it!’ she quips.

‘My research focus is on mathematical modelling of infectious diseases such as malaria, influenza and Covid-19. I also conduct research in the field of fusion of artificial intelligence and data-driven paradigms to automate disease modelling studies and surveys. These models provide an understanding of underlying causes for a complex phenomenon by predicting the future and impact of disease control measures,’ Prof Mathebula explains about her current work.

Her success as a mathematician includes having a paper in the peer-reviewed Mathematical Biosciences that rated third among the 25 hottest articles internationally in 2014—proving that hard work leads to great success and even ‘failures’ at school can become an inspiration. She has also presented some of her research work in international conferences.

Future aspirations

‘I aspire to be an established researcher and establish more international research collaborations and publish more articles,’ says Prof Mathebula.

She adds: ‘I advise young people who aspire to follow careers in the mathematical sciences to establish a network with those who have walked the same journey. Such mentors will help them to take their failures as motivation to press on towards their goals. Although I failed mathematics in grade 12, I never allowed that to discourage me and pressed on towards my goal. By the grace of God, and with the support of my family, teachers, lecturers and postgraduate supervisors, I am today an acknowledged mathematician. It is not because I am very intelligent, but because I have never allowed failure to stop me from reaching my goals. I have also had a teachable spirit when my mentors guided me.’

Prof Mathebula stresses the value of mathematics and science in general: ‘It is so fulfilling to know that, with mathematics as a universal language, every human being, regardless of gender, religion or race, can come up with significant solutions to real-life problems such as the Covid-19 pandemic. Without mathematicians and other scientists, it would not have been easy to come up with appropriate interventions to control the spread of Covid-19 globally.’