Born and raised in Durban, Chevarra Hansraj, ‘had an affinity for mathematics and computers and a natural curiosity about how the universe works’. This is not surprising because she was weaned on the diet of mathematics as her father is a professor in the field. Hansraj says during her schools days at Eden College Durban where she matriculated with 8 As, she used to write essays about legendary scientists such as Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking and Steve Jobs. She spent most of her schooling years.
She currently holds a post-graduate degree in astrophysics from the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) which boasts one of the prestigious Astrophysics Research Centres. Hansraj says she chose the STEMi stream because “I had a passion for mathematics and found that it joined hands seamlessly with physics and computer science in many paths. To be involved with that combination was extremely appealing to me because you’re always working with cutting-edge material,” says Hansraj.
Her current research involves finding solutions to Einstein’s field equations, black hole physics and modified gravity theories. She says equations are vital particularly in high end scientific projects such as Square Kilometre Array (SKA) into which South Africa has invested heavily. The SKA project is made up of a series of telescopes which continuously scan the sky to detect cosmic events.
“To explain these observations and their consequences for the future, one needs to look at the equations. In order to analyse the development of astrophysical objects like stars and galaxies, one needs to understand the behaviour of their gravitational fields. That’s why we look to solving the Einstein field equations. What’s interesting is that Einstein and others pre-empted the existence of the black hole and then these large experiments, that have made recent headlines, were conducted,” says Hansraj.
Space time decomposition
She says they recently conducted research involving the rotating black hole, which was the focal point of her doctoral thesis and a recent academic paper. The aim was to find out how the space and time around the rotating black hole changes or distorts as one gets close to it, she adds.
“So if you had to picture a spacecraft heading towards the rotating black hole, my thesis answers questions such as how the spacecraft will stretch, twist, rotate and deform as we get closer to it. This was done by using a mathematical technique called spacetime decomposition which allowed us to extract the physics behind the equations in an easier manner than researchers before us,” explains Hansraj. She says what she loves most about her career is the fact that she can become “an explorer every day in the quest to answer fundamental questions about the universe”. Hansraj says she also enjoys finding the answers to questions that lead to even more interesting questions and create links to other problems. She also loves collaborating with people who share her passion.
Boosting the number of women in STEMi
Hansraj blames the fewer numbers of women in the STEMi field on the stereotypes and societal misconceptions. She says it is important to envision oneself in a particular field before joining it and because many fields are male-dominated it becomes hard for women to aspire to be there. Other factors include financial and family commitments as well as lack of support structures.
To boost the number of women in STEMi, Hansraj suggests “having a healthy, supportive work environment where a woman feels free to give her opinion and is respected. I am happy to be in such an environment”. She says many institutions should advertise or spotlight women by hosting webinars or doing outreach programmes to show that women are very active in the STEMi workforce. Promoting the different opportunities and aids that exist now for women can also help motivate women to enter the STEMi field.
Career highlights and awards
- Achieved all her degree qualifications [BSc (Applied Mathematics & Computer Science); BScHons, MSc, PhD (Applied Mathematics)] summa cum laude and in minimum time.
- Awarded 93% in her MSc thesis, the highest mark ever awarded for an MSc completed in one year at UKZN’s College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science.
- She was awarded the prestigious S2A3 medal for Best Masters Research Dissertation in Sciences and Applied Sciences in 2019.
- Received prestigious NRF Chair bursaries; CoE-MaSS bursary and currently an OMT post-doctoral fellowship award.
- Recipient of DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Mathematical and Statistical Sciences (CoE-MaSS)’s SciComm Engagement Award. Reward: Research prize of R5000 (2021).
She also got first place in the following:
- Allan Gray Achievement Awards (third year-level). Reward: Cash Prize of R20 000 and iPad Mini 4. (2016)
- UKZN’s Postgraduate Research and Innovation Symposium in School of Maths, Stats and Comp Science (PhD Oral category). Reward: Sponsorship of R17 000 towards international conference. (2019)
- In the 3 Minute Thesis competition within UKZN. Reward: Cash prize of R12500. (2021)
Tips and advices
Sharing her professional tips to aspiring young women who want to venture into the STEMi stream, Hansraj says it is important to identify one’s strengths early on and stick with them. In most cases, she says, you will enjoy what you’re good at and that positive attitude is really important when it comes to something you’re considering doing for a long time.
“Ask questions and embark on the journey of finding the answers and you’d be surprised how much you learn along the way. Have confidence in your abilities and let them steer you ceaselessly forward. Hard work always pays off,” concludes Hansraj.