As a B3 NRF-rated(1) academic, Prof Kerstin Jordaan, the South African Mathematics Foundation (SAMF) executive director, is one of only three B-rated female mathematicians in the country. The National Research Foundation (NRF) rating system (introduced in 1984) is a critical driver in the NRF's plan to build an internationally competing science system in South Africa. Prof Jordaan is only the fifth female in her field to receive this rating since 1984.
Although she initially planned to study medicine, she commenced her undergraduate studies in psychology. "Because I had to choose some teaching subjects, I chose mathematics," says Jordaan. "Everybody said that you'd always have a job if you can teach mathematics. However, I soon realised that I did not resonate with psychology because it consists of unproven and varied theories whereas mathematics is complete, analytical, and logical. It has a structure in which you can prove ideas so that you know that they are absolutely true within this logical system, and it has physical applications. Mathematics is the language of science."
But what is mathematics research? According to Jordaan, there are two broad classifications of mathematics research: pure and applied mathematics. Pure mathematics, her research field, is about developing new mathematical techniques, formulas, and theorems. It often involves working in an abstract realm so that what you prove has greater generality. This means that the physical applications are not necessarily immediately obvious. An applied mathematician would take known formulas, theorems and results, analysing and interpreting them to apply to a real-world situation. The mathematics needed to solve real life problems or develop new technology is frequently developed long before an application is found. The development of the computer is an example of applied mathematics. According to Jordaan, much of the mathematics needed to develop the computer already existed long before the first computer was built. There are many branches of mathematics that played a role in the computer's development.
"As a mathematician, your work consists of building a knowledge base, almost like building a house of bricks," she explains. "Each layer of bricks you lay has a solid foundation underneath it with no holes, gaps, or errors. And then you keep expanding this house. Another analogy I use is that the body of knowledge in mathematics is like a tree. Each branch is a different field of specialisation. What I know may be part of one leaf of the whole tree. As I research, I expand my knowledge in that leaf. However, to do that, I need all the knowledge about the smaller branches, big branches, and the tree's trunk. The trunk is what we learn about mathematics at school and university."
Although women are the minority in mathematics research, Jordaan says she thoroughly enjoys it. "It gives me time to think about and analyse a problem, searching for solutions." She clarifies that mathematics research is not about sitting in isolation in front of a computer all day. "It is an exciting and intellectually stimulating career compatible with teaching and family life. One works with people all the time! It's creative and, at the same time, logical."
Jordaan encourages girls to practice mathematics outside of the classroom. Who knows? Maybe you'll be one of the future's top mathematics researchers!
The SAMF offers annual primary and high school competitions, which open for registration every January. The organisation also partnered with MyTutor.chat. In this web-based application, anyone interested in mathematics and problem-solving can practice on their own time. There are also many resources for practising mathematics on the SAMF's YouTube channel.