Born and raised in Durban, in Kwa-Zulu Natal, Shavani Naicker is an incredibly gifted maths wizard. She went to Star College girls high school in Westville from 2012-2016. She capped her high school education with eight A’s after which she went to the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal (UKZN), where she completed her undergraduate degree: Bachelor of Science in applied mathematics and astronomy. After three years of studies, Naicker graduated summa cum laude.
Scoring summa cum laude passes
She subsequently enrolled and completed a one-year Bachelor of Science Honours degree in applied mathematics also at UKZN and graduated with distinctions and summa cum laude. She followed this up with a one a year Master of Science by research also in applied mathematics at the same institution with her area of focus being on modified gravity and general relativity. Once again she graduated in Masters’ degree with a summa cum laude distinction.
Why I pursued STEMi stream
Currently, Naicker is in her second year of her NRF-funded doctoral degree in applied maths at the same institution. “I find innovative ways to solve complicated equations that describe the gravitational behaviour of astrophysical bodies such as stars in the universe which will help us to understand the development and evolution of such objects,” explains Naicker.
She says her decision to pursue the STEM field was influenced by her sheer love for both maths and science in which she always excelled as well as her inspirational high school teacher. The teacher, she says, introduced her to a show called Bill Nye – the science guy – who used creative and exciting ways to explain different concepts of science. “This got me hooked after which I knew my career would be in science,” Naicker says.
Gazing up in the night sky
In addition, she says when she was growing up she used to gaze up at the night sky and marvel at the stars. She was always curious and wanted to know how and where it all came from. It was this inquisitive mind and the need to know more about the universe and how it works that ignited her passion for astrophysics. “From a young age, I started watching various videos about the universe on the discovery channel by NASA and started reading up on some of those most brilliant minds in physics and maths like Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein and Kip Thorne,” she recalls fondly.
Science should resolve societal challenges
Naicker favours the brand of science that impacts lives and is used to resolve some of the critical challenges that confront society. She singled out Square Kilometres Array and MeerKAT as perfect examples of science projects that serve humanity. Currently, the two world’s largest telescopes stationed in South Africa, conducts observations on the objects several thousand away in our universe. She says the projects rely constantly on the latest technologies and also require continuous improvement. “Therefore, in this area, there are always technological advancements which would help in many different sectors such as banks, medicine and the environment,” adds Naicker.
Increasing young women’s participation in STEMi
She says the country needs to encourage more young women to pursue studies in the STEMi fields given the low numbers of women within the sector. She believes that there should be more awareness on the STEMi field through outreach programmes and mentorship programmes. Women ambassadors in the STEMi field, says Naicker, should use these platforms to share their knowledge, experiences and opportunities to underprivileged high schools. They should also encourage and guide female high school students on their journey to such careers, she adds.
Current academic project
Explaining her current academic focus, Naicker says the particular modified gravity theoryshe is working in is Einstein-Gauss-Bonnet gravity. She says she also looks at how dimensions greater than the usual four affect the behaviour of stars and galaxies. “My next endeavour is to work in a modified gravity theory called third order Lovelock gravity. In addition to this, I am an ad-hoc lecturer at UKZN for a first-year mathematics course,” Naicker says.
Sharing her love of STEMi with young minds
She says she started giving online lectures in 2022 and this year she is doing it in person. To date she taught over 200 students and says she enjoys sharing her love of mathematics with young minds in science. Her advice to young female maths and science enthusiasts is that they should never let fears or doubts hold them back. Never give up despite challenges that you may encounter and be confident and have a positive outlook, advises Naicker.
Achievements and Awards:
• Awarded the SKA undergraduate bursary for 2018-2020.
• Merit Scholarship from UKZN for first year and second year of undergraduate degree.
• Obtained Dean’s Commendations and numerous Merit certificates for 2017-2020.
• Member of Golden Key International Honours Society.
• Awarded the College Deputy Vice-Chancellor’s scholarship of R50 000 for placement of the top three in the College of Agriculture Engineering and Science for 2nd year students. (2019)
• Hanno Rund award for the top third year student in Applied Mathematics (2020).
• Hanno Rund award for the top Honours student in Applied Mathematics (2021).
What I love about my field of study
Naicker says what she loves about her area of study is the flexibility it offers; I can do it at 3am or 4pm, she says. In addition, she says the work provides many travel opportunities. “I am able to travel either nationally or internationally for conferences and workshops,” she says. This, she adds, provides a platform to meet and network with prolific researchers. Furthermore, Naicker can also share her knowledge on her area of expertise with fellow researchers in the same field and this also opens up doors for collaboration. The field also offers a financial stability as there are many funding opportunities in the form of scholarships such as Centre of Excellence in Mathematical and Statistical sciences.