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PhD at 27!

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She’s on her way to earning a PhD in Biomathematics

BY RUTH WANJIKU

If all goes according to plan, in two years’ time, Winne Wanja Chabaari will be one of the youngest Kenyan PhD holders in Biomathematics, a branch of Applied Mathematics.

The 27-year-old is currently pursuing her postgraduate studies in South Africa, where she has distinguished herself in academia and leadership. Although she does not describe it that way, she comes from a family of academic giants, who include her father, Prof Isaiah Kindiki, a soil scientist, and her uncle, Prof Kithure Kindiki, a lawyer and senator for Tharaka Nithi.

“There are several professors in my father’s family,” she says, but is quick to point out that she has charted her own path as a mathematician, though with encouragement from her parents.

Her passion in Biomathematics, particularly in cancer research, is obvious. Currently, Wanja carries out her research at the South African Center of Excellence in Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis (SACEMA) under Stellenbosch University.

You might wonder what the relationship is between diseases and mathematics.

Winne Wanja Chabaari is studying for a PhD in

Winne Wanja Chabaari is studying for a PhD in Bio Mathematics, a branch of Applied Mathematics. PHOTO| COURTESY

Wanja explains,

“Mathematical codes are key in the field of medicine and public health, understanding how cancer tumours develop and spread is vital for finding treatments and cures.”

Mathematical modelling and computer simulation techniques are used to discover and gain insight into the dynamics of tumour development, growth and spread.

“The results we come up with are used to advice medical practitioners and government institutions on the best disease treatment or mitigation methods,” she says.

“I am interested in cancer disease modelling because I enjoy contributing to its study,” she says, adding that her drive is even more personal, since the disease has hit closer home – her six-year-old cousin is battling stage four of the disease.

We caught up with Wanja, who is based in South Africa, when she travelled back home to take part in the second Kenyatta University Mathematics Workshop.

She also presented a paper at the Strathmore University Mathematics Conference; her paper was titled: “Intracellular and immune-response delays effects on the interaction between tumor cells, oncolytic viruses and the immune system.”

In layman’s terms, her study is on the use of viruses that attack tumour cells, leaving healthy cells unharmed (oncolytic viruses). This is a relatively new treatment method in the realm of cancer therapy.

THE BEST AT WHAT SHE DOES

Rated among the best students in her field, in 2012, she was picked to attend one of the most prestigious academic meetings in the world, the Nebraska Conference for Undergraduate Women in Mathematics. She made history as the first female African student to be invited to the conference.

Last year, she received an award and invitation to the prestigious Golden Key International Honour Society. This is the world’s largest collegiate honour society.

Membership into the society is by invitation only and applies to the top 15 per cent of college and university undergraduates and top-performing graduate students in all fields of study, based solely on their academic achievements.

Despite these achievements, the Bishop Gatimu Ngandu Girls High School alumnae is guarded in her celebrations; she says her joy will only be full when she establishes a foundation to mentor girls in Kenya into Mathematics.

“Unlike common belief, it is one of the easiest subjects,” she says.

She scored A in the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) with the highest marks in Mathematics (A of 98 percent) and B+ in the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education.

The first born in a family of three says her interest in math picked up steadily in high school.

“I have a short memory in academic theory. I realised I lost interest fast in most of the other subjects since they occupied a huge chunk of my memory and were not as exciting as Science subjects were to me.” she says. By the time she completed high school, she was certain that her future was in the field of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

She was also keen to take on a challenge many women are discouraged from taking on. “My mum loved mathematics, but she was discouraged from studying it as there was, as is now, albeit dwindling, a belief that maths is generally for the male gender.”

When she joined the University of Fort Hare, she was the only female undergraduate in her Applied Mathematics majors classes, and remembers one of her lecturers advising her to study ‘something more manageable’. She stayed put.

While admitting that we are all gifted differently, she says attitude and bias make many students view math as difficult.

“The biggest asset is an open mind because it makes learning easy,” she says.

SYSTEMS NEED TO CHANGE

Having studied in the Kenyan and South African systems, she says approaches to education differentiate the two. She is full of praise of the Kenyan secondary school curriculum, which she says has good content.

“Kenya has invested so much in the secondary school system, but something goes wrong at the university level,” she observes.

The mathematician points out that in South Africa, students are encouraged to think critically, and performance is hardly based on passing exams. Her disappointment with the Kenyan university system is the little regard and investment in research.

“In South Africa, post-graduate students are seen as a great resource for the government and the private sector,” she says, adding that the corporate sector in South Africa engages universities and rarely depends on foreign expatriates for solutions. Consequently, as she studies, she is not worried about finding formal employment because she gets compensation for the work she does.

She suggests that Kenya needs to re-evaluate its engagement with institutions of higher learning and tap into one of the richest resources the country has.

Her biggest fear, she says, is dying having lived an unfulfilled life.

“I lay my bricks every day, my goal not only being a prolific mathematician, but a phenomenal woman in the society making positive influence globally,” she says.

To unwind, she watches motivational speakers on TED talks or reading inspirational books or selected biographies. Currently, she is reading Screw It, Let’s Do It by Richard Branson and ‘Who moved my Cheese’ by Spencer Johnson.

“I admire Branson; I am one of his biggest followers. I have also picked vital lessons from Ben Carson, who had been written off as a failure in his younger years, but rose to become one of the finest surgeons in America.”

When not running codes and simulations, Wanja is either playing tennis, listening to music, travelling or socialising with friends over a puzzle or trivia challenge.

Her advice to a young person reading this is: “Have passion for whatever you want to pursue and go for it. Be your greatest cheerleader!”

She admits that she is torn between patriotism and the opportunities her field of study offers in South Africa and beyond.

“I take the opportunities for now because time is of the essence,” she explains.

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