Inspiring the Next Generation of Mathematicians: The Legacy of Dr Cerene Rathilal

Inspiring the Next Generation of Mathematicians: The Legacy of Dr Cerene Rathilal

On 12 May every year, the mathematics community celebrates the International Day of Women in Mathematics. The day commemorates the birthday of the Iranian mathematician and Fields Medal recipient Maryam Mirzakhani (1977-2017). Maryam is a role model for female mathematicians worldwide. One such mathematician is Dr Cerene Rathilal, a lecturer at the University of KwaZulu - Natal’s School of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science.

According to the South African Mathematics Foundation (SAMF), roughly 50% of the first-round participants of their annual Olympiad are girls. By the third round, less than 30% of the participants were girls. Cerene says that society must address gender inequality in mathematics. "Gender representation is vital - not just in mathematics but in every discipline. It is common knowledge that the sum of the parts equals the whole. Suppose we view the whole as our society. Who was contributing to the sum of the parts in mathematical discoveries? In the past, it was male representation. Imagine what could have happened if we had female representation in the past and if females had equal opportunities to contribute to mathematical discoveries."

Nurturing an interest in mathematics, explains Cerene, starts at home and in the classroom. "We could bring mathematics into the kitchen. When preparing a meal, try to understand the various quantities or volumes. Your recipe may require 750 ml of water, but you only have a 500 ml cup to measure. Parents and teachers could guide their children to think about the problem and devise solutions to estimate 750 ml using the cup. Our homes are the perfect place for fun mathematics experiments."

Although more females steadily enter the sciences fields, Cerene says it comes down to parents and teachers to ensure girls get exposed to role models. "We must show them that there are people like them in mathematics so that girls have inspiring examples to follow. We should also encourage a growth mindset. So we must celebrate the efforts, progress, and discoveries made by female students, mathematicians, and those contributing to mathematics."

Cerene explained why mathematics is essential. "Mathematics is about developing new things. Are you using GPS today? Is it making your life easier? Is it helping you plan your trip from work to home, knowing exactly how long it will take you to get there and which traffic points to avoid? GPS is possible because of pure mathematical techniques that scientists used to develop into software for the public's benefit."  

Another application of mathematics is in the financial field. "Were South Africans happy with the three most recent interest hikes? Do we have any control over these interest hikes? Do we understand why they arise? What if we have systems that enable us to understand these things? What if we could predict when we would get the next interest hike? Without mathematics, answering these questions is impossible."

Mathematics affects everyone in society. The technology in sewing machines, kitchen appliances, mobile phones, and the internet comes from mathematical understanding and techniques. That is why Cerene advocates for children to have access to learning mathematics every day.

One of the things she does to help correct the gender imbalance is the STEM MentHER Program. She launched the program last year at the University of Johannesburg, and this year it has been launched at Stellenbosch University. "We asked educators and principals to nominate female learners from their schools to join the program. We received a tremendous response, which was encouraging because it shows that girls want to get into mathematics and sciences."  

Cerene, like many of her peers, celebrates the achievements of Maryam Mirzakhani on the International Day of Women in Mathematics. "She was one of the world's leading geometry and dynamical systems experts," concludes Cerene. "Maryam's beautiful and astonishing results and her life and career inspire everyone to pursue their dreams in science. In 2014, Maryam Mirzakhani received the Fields Medal for her outstanding contributions to the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces. She was the first woman to be recognised by this top mathematical prize for her mathematical achievements. Maryam died tragically from cancer in 2017 at age 40."

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