Wednesday, 25 February 2015 10:40

Notable SANigerians: Dr Oghenetega Ighedo Unisa’s first black female pure mathematics PhD

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Dr Oghenetega Ighedo of Unisa’s Department of Mathematical SciencesWhen Ighedo registered at Unisa she did not know that no black women had received their PhDs in pure mathematics in the history of the university. In fact, she was only made aware of this after she graduated. “So for me it is not really an issue because women of whatever race or ethnicity are as capable as men in all fields of human endeavour. I think Unisa can use my achievement positively because in this discipline, women generally, and black women in particular, are grossly under represented,” she explains.

Social practices and prejudices play an unfortunate role

With social practices and prejudices playing an unfortunate role and fewer women joining pure mathematics, Ighedo is reminded of the story of Emmy Noether, which has kept her strong despite the challenges. As one of the leading female mathematicians of the 1900s, Noether was an influential German mathematician known for her ground-breaking contributions to abstract algebra and theoretical physics. Despite this, Noether was blocked from taking a position at the University of Göttingen by some men who protested against her joining the institution: “What will our soldiers think when they return to the university and find that they are required to learn at the feet of a woman,” they said. Whilst the present day and age does not amount to resistance of this nature, there are still challenges.

Taking social issues out of the equation, Ighedo points out that there are challenges that lie within the mathematics discipline as well. “The biggest challenge in pure mathematics is that, by its very nature, there is no room for waffling and winning arguments by sophistry or sleight of hand. What is true is universally true and you have to give a valid proof for all your assertions,” she explains. A quote that best sums up that rationale for Ighedo is: “Unlike in chess, where you need only be more correct than your opponent, in mathematics you need to be absolutely correct.” However, pure mathematics is not all difficulty and challenges, in fact, the highlights, she says, are too numerous to list.

Ighedo inspired by her mother the retired mathematics teacher

Ighedo is proving the notion that women become their mothers as her inspiration to study mathematics came from her mother who is a retired mathematics teacher. “My decision to study pure mathematics was also motivated by the fact that not only are there few black pure mathematicians but there are fewer black women who are pure mathematicians,” she points out.

With Unisa in the business of shaping futures for more than 140 years now, the gravity of Ighedo’s achievement for the university still has not hit home yet. “It took a bit of time for everything to settle in. No sooner had that happened then it dawned on me that my PhD was just a start. Having chosen a career in academia, I have now started doing research beyond the thesis and aiming to publish quality articles in good journals. My supervisor has insisted on cutting the umbilical cord early.”

Started PhD as a wife and mother

Ighedo is aware that there are many young women who shy away from studying mathematics because of the obvious difficulty. Her advice is simple: “I encourage young women not to let adversity and challenges deter them. When I started my PhD I was already married, I had two children and was expecting my little bundle of joy, who arrived four months after I had started. In spite of being a mother and a wife, I was able to complete my PhD within three years. Before graduation, an article emanating from the thesis had already appeared in an accredited international journal, and two others had been accepted also in accredited international journals. So if I can do it, other women can do it also,” she says.

Not only has her achievement gained her recognition, but respect as well from fellow colleagues, one of which is Themba Dube, Professor in Unisa’s Department of Mathematical Sciences and National Research Foundation C1-rated researcher in topology. “For me the greatest excitement is that Dr Ighedo wrote a brilliant thesis that has so far produced three published articles and one accepted in an international journal. Her work encompasses techniques from algebra and category theory to probe nontrivial questions in pointfree topology. There are presently very few women, and even fewer black women, in pure mathematics. I trust her example will be motivation to young women to pursue this very engaging subject”.

In addition to a PhD in Pure Mathematics, Ighedo has a BSc Honours degree in Industrial Mathematics, and a Master’s degree in Pure Mathematics. As part of her promotion of pure mathematics to young people, she has given motivational talks at the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Muizenberg, and at a few historically disadvantaged universities.

-UNISA/By Kirosha Naicker

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