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Women’s Month Feature: Tshenolo Daumas, SKA SA

In celebration of National Women’s Month 2017, the NRF is paying to tribute to our female researchers at the NRF managed National Research Facilities. We thank the ladies for volunteering to tell us a little about themselves and the work they do.

1. What did you study and where? 

BSc Actuarial and Financial Mathematics at the University of Pretoria; BSc Mathematical Sciences at the University of Johannesburg, and BSc (Hons) Applied Mathematics at Stellenbosch University. 

2. What made you decide to choose your field of study? Is it what you envisioned for yourself while growing up?  

Mathematics has always been what I was good at. Actuarial Sciences was recommended to me by a guidance counsellor following an aptitude test, but I also chose it because I felt I needed to have something to apply the maths I loved so much to. I only completed up to the second year of this course because it became clear to me that I was focussing too much on the application and less on learning what I love – which was the maths itself. 

This drove my decision to start over and pursue the BSc in Mathematical Sciences. That was the best decision I could have made for my life. 

3. What are your responsibilities at your place of work and how long have you worked there?  

I have been at the SKA SA for two years and six months. I spent my first 14 months in Operations where my duties were to control the telescope in order to carry out observations at the request of astronomers. I was also tasked with monitoring, troubleshooting and maintaining the health of the telescope in conjunction with technicians on site.  

I moved from Operations to RARG (Radio Astronomy Research Group) in April 2016. In the team I am tasked with developing a method that will facilitate the process of calibration and solving for point source parameters to be carried out simultaneously, using Non-linear Least-squares and Radio Interferometry techniques.  

4. How do you think your work can benefit/impact South Africans and/or the world?  

The field I am in is still new to me. I believe with more awareness the most significant impact of the work I do (on South Africans) will be to open their minds to the variety and abundance of opportunities that are out there in the STEM world. These opportunities are not only for self-development – it also makes us a part of massive projects like the SKA that will leave South Africa’s footprint firmly on the globe.  

5. What obstacles did you have to overcome to get to where you are today?  

If I were to choose only two, they would be self-doubt and fear. The fear of never being good enough to be considered for any meaningful opportunities and also the fear of being given a good opportunity and not being successful in pursuing it. 

6. What makes you get up every morning?  

Gratitude to the Almighty. The thankfulness that He has allowed me to witness another sunrise to fulfil the purpose He has put me on Earth for, and to be productive and use the faculties He has blessed me with.  

7. Who has been your greatest inspiration? Who saw your potential/encouraged you when the going got tough? 

My mother, Dr Kgalalelo Daumas. She sacrificed her dream of becoming a medical doctor and instead worked as a nurse for 16 years so she could ensure that my sister and I had everything we needed. She went for her dream later in life, graduating with an MBChB at the age of 40. Today, she is pursuing her Neurology speciality. She showed me how important it was to have a vision for your life, and that sometimes sacrifices were needed. Also, it doesn’t mean that where you are (at a certain point in time) is your “ceiling” – you need to keep pushing the boundaries.  

In terms of being encouraged, that has always been intrinsic for me. I may have been born with the motivation to make something worthwhile of my life. I have been a straight-A student all my life and never received a gift or incentive for it from my parents, or anyone. My identity is closely tied to my self-worth – when the going got tough, the only choice I saw was to work and try harder. The lives and actions of the people I look up to, like my mom, have also served as encouragement. 

8. Is there any female role model(s) in the science industry that you look up to?  

Dr Kgalalelo Daumas, my mother and medical doctor. 

Dr Mamokgeti Setati-Phakeng, the first black female South African PhD in mathematics education.  

9. Which of your academic achievements are you most proud of?  

My BSc, there were times I was not sure I would pull through.  

10. What is your vision for the future – what do you hope to achieve in the next ten years?  

Oh, this is a very tricky domain to navigate because I have had to tweak my original vision a few times in the past couple of years. 

What I am sure of is that in ten years, I would like to have achieved my PhD in Mathematical Sciences. I would also like to have a multidisciplinary professional experience. I want to develop myself a little bit more in Radio Interferometry; I want to contribute to the healthcare sector, and definitely to education. It may seem sporadic, but I don’t want to be “just one thing”.  

11. What is your advice for young women who want to pursue a career in STEM?  

Go for it! It is the best thing you could do for yourself. More than that, there is really not much to say. Being in STEM is like indulging in a scrumptious meal: you can describe the taste with as many words as you know, but the next person can never know the pleasure until they experience it for themselves.  

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