‘Work hard but follow your dreams. If an environment is not conducive to continuous learning, move on and find a new challenge.’

These are particularly striking words if one considers they are those of Professor Renette Blignaut, Professor of Statistics at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), who was awarded the Thought Leader Award for 2021 by the South African Statistical Association (SASA). This was in recognition of her as an exceptional leader, mentor and teacher – someone who has touched and changed the lives of countless students, colleagues and the greater community.

Among others, Prof Blignaut currently serves as Chairperson of the Data Science Academic Committee of the National Graduate Academy for Mathematical and Statistical Sciences (NGA(MaSS)) and on the governing board of the Centre for Multi-dimensional Data Visualisation at Stellenbosch University. Her NRF rating is C2 (2023-2027).

She trained as a statistician by completing an MSc (Mathematical Statistics) at the University of Cape Town, and completed a PhD (Statistics) at the University of Pretoria. Then followed eight years’ experience as a statistician in industry and more than 30 years in an academic environment, training students in the fields of statistics and data science.

Prof Blignaut’s research interests include statistical learning methods (including data mining), biostatistics, mobile security awareness, cyber security, artificial intelligence and science education. She has already published at least 83 accredited articles and 22 technical reports. She has made numerous presentations at international (at least 53) and national (more than 50) conferences and workshops (at least 56). She has also supervised or co-supervised 34 Masters and 8 PhD students, while examining 11 PhD theses and more than 30 Masters theses.

Community engagement programme

At the 2023 Academic Achievers’ Awards, the UWC’s Data Science programmes won the prestigious 2023 UWC Community Engagement Excellence Award. The engagement includes industry (local and international), school teachers and learners, and the research has an impact both nationally and globally. Their programmes train employable students and embark on fundraising efforts to secure bursaries.

With training, leadership and engagement in the field of data science currently being of major importance to academia as well as the economy as a whole, the views of an academic of Prof Blignaut’s standing are particularly significant. ‘Our collaborative programme started with the Centre for Business, Mathematics and Informatics (CBMI) at Northwest University in 2018, one of the few successful collaborative programmes at Master’s level in the field of Data Science. I have managed the UWC programmes since 2018 and was the leading UWC team member to establish this collaboration with the CBMI,’ she explains.

‘After six years’ work since the start of the programme, we are now starting to see our programme being recognised and becoming a programme of choice. For our data science programmes to remain successful, we have to continuously engage with communities and industry to ensure we train students who are industry ready with the appropriate skills.’

She provides some more details: ‘The Statistical Science MSc students at UWC who specialise in Data Science do industry projects as part of their research component during the first and second semester of each year. To enable this important part of student training, the team continuously engages with various communities and industry. To date we have grown our industry network to 28 partners, with the latest addition of the South African Reserve Bank.’

She adds: ‘In 2022, our first international collaboration was initiated with colleagues from Media, Innovation and Communication Technology at Ghent University in Belgium (imec-mict-UGent). This led to the completion of two collaborative Masters projects in 2022, with one of the Masters students registering for a joint PhD between UWC and Ghent University in 2023.’

The programme is a far-reaching one: ‘Research has been focused on student industry research, but as a team we are building capacity to develop research niche areas. Furthermore, I am one of the UWC team members who are developing an Artificial Intelligence Maturity Assessment Framework for South Africa. This project is in collaboration with GIZ, Fair Forward, CSIR, SAICA and UWC.’

Since 2019, the team has used various platforms to attract more students. ‘This includes our Women in Analytics and Divas and Dudes in Data Science annual school outreach workshops. In 2022, we were also involved in Mathematics teacher training sessions in KwaZulu-Natal and in the Western Cape. For this, we received funding from the Centre of Excellence for Mathematics and Statistical Sciences and SAS to host the workshops in collaboration with the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and North-West University (NWU). Finding and securing bursary funding for our students is crucial for the sustainability of our numbers in the long run.’

Where it started – and global ties today

Prof Blignaut credits Prof Carel van der Merwe, her direct senior at the Medical Research Council in Pretoria, as playing a pivotal role in her career path as a statistician. ‘He helped me bridge the gap between my academic knowledge and becoming a statistician to solve real-world problems.’

Today the programme she leads has a significant global reach. ‘An international research group comprising of Ivano Bongiovanni (Queensland), Karen Renaud (Strathclyde), Humphrey Brydon (UWC) and Angelo Cavallo (Milan) has conducted research in cybersecurity compliance in industry. This research group was established in 2020 and our first paper “A quantification mechanism for assessing adherence to information security governance guidelines”, was published early in 2022.’

She adds: ‘I am also part of an international research group consisting of computer scientists and statisticians who conducted research in cybersecurity-related behaviour. The three most recent publications (2021) explored the security and cyber-related behaviour of students in the online learning environment during COVID-19. My co-researchers on this research were Isabel Venter (UWC), Karen Renaud (Strathclyde), Desiree Cranfield (Swansea) and Andrea Tick (Hungary). We are currently submitting another paper on student behaviour, study practices and security awareness during online learning in 2020.’

Prof Blignaut elaborates further: ‘Data collected using Qualtrics questionnaires at three universities in three countries were analysed to reveal the similarities and differences in the cyber-related risk perceptions (attitudes and concerns) and protective behaviours of the students studying online during the COVID-19 pandemic. The more technical aspects of the research include analyses such as factor analysis, principal component analyses and decision trees to answer the research questions.’

She adds: ‘We have extended our research to investigate how academics in various countries are utilising conversational artificial intelligence and large language models in their teaching and research.’

Collaboration with various departments at UWC has included studies in a wide variety of topics, such as mathematics education, and (in the field of Biostatistics) research in bioinformatics, sexual risk behaviour and dental implants.

More examples of collaboration: ‘In 2019, I was part of a team receiving the UWC Group Award for a community project – the Zenzeleni Internet project – which provided internet infrastructure and training in the Eastern Cape. Earlier, I completed statistical analysis for laboratories in Spain, USA, France and Poland for research on sperm measurements for Microptic. In 2014, I assisted the Western Cape Blood Transfusion Service with machine calibration (community service), and in the same year completed the analysis of a survey on why students select UWC for the UWC Schools Liaison Unit.

In the spirit of local and global collaboration, Prof Blignaut notes that ‘being an Associate of NITheCS enables me to attend many presentations from experts across the world.’