Nokuthaba works at Victoria University of Wellington, where she develops and applies statistical methods to better understand patterns in areas ranging from health to fisheries.
What do you do in an average work day?
My days are very varied, but generally split between teaching, research, administration and statistical consulting.
I can be doing anything from lecturing a group of 300 first year students, to meeting research students to discuss how their work is going and what they should do next, to taking part in a research meeting with collaborators, to running a consulting meeting with clients.
What did you study at high school? After high school?
At school I focused on science subjects and maths, which was by far my favourite subject.
After high school I did my first degree in Statistics at the University of Zimbabwe, and then went on to study a Masters and PhD in Statistics at University College London and Imperial College London, respectively.
Was your study directly related to what you do now?
Yes very much so. Once I discovered my love for the power of statistics to help uncover the patterns hidden in a set of data, I stuck with it.
What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about career choices right now?
It’s important to choose something that you enjoy and the career prospects in that field.
Sometimes it’s hard to know what career to choose and there can be a lot of pressure to get it right. Make the best choice you can make at the time based on what you enjoy and what you are good at.
As you grow older your interests and career choice may change. Never stop learning and developing yourself!
What are some of your career highlights so far?
An early highlight for me was being head-hunted to work as a Quality Engineer straight after my undergraduate degree based on my third-year research project. I was hired to establish a system for quality improvement and monitoring that had not existed before in the company. In my project, I had to set up such a system for one product line and I was hired to extend this to all product lines.
Later on, when I worked as a Biostatistician, I led a team to develop a UK-wide system of quality monitoring and improvement for surgical outcomes in organ transplantation. This led to my secondment to a European Economic Community Working Group to develop Europe-wide standards for methods for quality monitoring in the area of organ transplants.
Engaging with research students and helping them develop their research ideas and solve problems is always a highlight for me.
Why do you believe engaging in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is important to New Zealand?
STEM subjects teach us how to approach each problem in a systematic, logical and objective manner, which leads to better decision-making and problem-solving skills.
It’s important for New Zealand to engage in STEM so that we can develop solutions for those issues and problems that are unique to New Zealand, which we are best placed to understand.
I am convinced that understanding statistics is essential to being a contributing and powerful member of society. We all need to be able to tell the difference between genuine results based on sound analysis and fictitious scare-mongering.
When people understand the scientific method and data analysis, they're less likely to be duped by unscrupulous people pushing fake remedies, backward beliefs and life-threatening dogmas such as anti-vaccination.
Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
Diversity is key in increasing knowledge in any area. People often work and carry out research in areas that are important to them and the communities they come from. Having more women in STEM means we may have more people working on issues that are important for women, as well as bringing a different perspective to existing important questions.
I am particularly keen to see more women from low resource communities and countries being involved in STEM. A key example for why this is important is maternal mortality in low resource communities. The World Health Organisation reports that roughly 303,000 women around the world died during and following pregnancy and childbirth in 2015. About 99% all of these deaths occurred in low-resource settings, and most could have been prevented.
If more women from low resource communities become involved in STEM we may start to make headway in problems, such as maternal mortality, that have become less of a concern in higher resourced countries.
Nokuthaba has a joint appointment as Senior Lecturer in Statistics (School of Mathematics and Statistics) and as Senior Research Fellow in Biostatistics (School of Health – Centre for Women’s Health Research) at Victoria University of Wellington. Her work involves developing and applying methods to better understand patterns in areas ranging from health to fisheries.
This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.
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