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Prof Eunice Mphako-Banda – School of Mathematics – University of Witwatersrand: Breaking gender stereotypes

This week on Womanity-Women in Unity, Dr. Amaleya Goneos-Malka talks to Prof Eunice Mphako-Banda from the School of Mathematics at the University of Witwatersrand.

Mathematics is instrumental to science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers. According to the Pew Research Centre, jobs in STEM occupations have grown by 79% since 1990. STEM jobs are projected to grow at a higher rate than non-STEM subjects and have higher earning potential.  Despite these statistics, women make up approximately a third of the STEM workforce, demonstrating that the STEM landscape is still male biased.

Prof Mphako-Banda shares her journey into the mathematics discipline. Starting in Malawi her first-grade teacher remarked to her father, “Your child is going to be a doctor”. The combination of her aptitude for mathematics and positive support system in her early years nurtured her self-confidence. She considers these factors to be pivotal to overcoming the misconceptions girls face in patriarchal society and gender stereotyping. She strongly advocates for girls to be empowered from an early age to believe in themselves, that they can do anything, and should be exposed to women from different fields to realise what is possible. Furthermore, we are products of our environment; people and place play an instrumental role in shaping who we become. Choose your friends wisely.

After graduating from the University of Malawi with a B.Ed. in sciences in 1992, Prof. Mphako-Banda sought to further her studies and applied to institutions in the UK. She hand wrote and posted hundreds of letters and received just as many rejections. Her perseverance paid off with a British Council Scholarship that funded her Postgraduate Diploma and MSc in Mathematics in the UK. Determined to fulfil her dream of being a doctor, after sending 101 applications for her PhD, she received three letters of acceptance and travelled to New Zealand to attain her Ph.D. in Discrete Mathematics from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Travelling and living in different countries is an invaluable learning experience.

Today, Prof Mphako-Banda’s research areas include Matroid Theory, Low-Dimension Topology-Knot Theory, Combinatorics, and Graph Theory. She shares an example of how she uses pure mathematics to help design chemical compounds to treat conditions like Alzheimer’s.

Prof Mphako-Banda has achieved significant personal goals in her career and aims to encourage and mentor women. She urges women to not compete against one another, but rather work together, celebrate each other, lift one another up and embrace opportunities in STEM.

#WomeninMaths

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