School of Mathematics, Statistics & Computer Science

The sky is the limit for UKZN Statistics lecturer Dr Jesca Batidzirai.

Passionate Advocate for Women in STEM Bags PhD… and Twin Boys!

Despite becoming a mother to twin boys at a crucial stage in her academic journey, Pietermaritzburg lecturer Dr Jesca Batidzirai graduated with a PhD in Statistics!

A passionate advocate for women in Science, Batidzirai explained the context of her research: ‘Timing of marriage and marriage dissolution are key determinants of the psychological wellbeing and health of adults and children involved in these events,’ she said. ‘Evidence suggests that early marriages and marital dissolutions may increase the rates of stress, depression, high blood pressure, anxiety, aggression, suicidal thoughts and many other mental health disorders.

‘Extensions to statistical models proposed in my PhD include the multivariate discrete-time multi-state model with multiple recurrent transitions. In addition to determining factors associated with each transition into or out of a marriage, the model helps to measure the interdependencies between these transitions simultaneously, to be able to understand the likelihood of experiencing a marital dissolution given the time of entry into a marriage, and vice-versa.’

Batidzirai was a recipient of the prestigious Wellcome Trust funded DELTAS Sub-Saharan Africa Advanced Consortium for Biostatistics (SSACAB) grant, and part of her work was published in an internationally accredited high impact journal. She has presented her research in countries such as Australia, Spain, Ghana, Malawi, Namibia, Tanzania, Botswana, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

‘Growing up in a family with more boys than girls, I learned to tackle life’s challenges with the same resilience and strength as my male counterparts,’ said Batidzirai. ‘This environment shaped my mindset, instilling in me the belief that gender should never limit one’s ability to overcome obstacles and achieve success.

‘At secondary school, science subjects were riddled with gender biases, with males often dominating in the field. It was not uncommon for a science class of around 55 students to have only a handful of girls. Determined to challenge this norm, I set out to prove that gender is no barrier to academic achievement.’

Batidzirai’s goal is clear: to inspire and motivate girls to pursue their academic passions without hesitation and regardless of societal biases. ‘This drive has fuelled my career path as a dedicated researcher and lecturer with a keen interest in the mental health and wellbeing of women,’ she said.

Batidzirai, who is a member of the International Biometric Society (IBS), South African Statistical Association (SASA) and the Southern African Mathematical Association (SAMSA), is currently supervising two PhD students and four master’s students and has previously supervised to completion three master’s and 12 honours degree students. She has research collaborations in America, Malawi, Ghana, Botswana and Zimbabwe where she has published more than 12 publications outside her PhD, using advanced statistical models to address public health issues, with the aim of improving the welfare of women and children.

Batidzirai has also participated in programmes with the University of Harvard TH Chan’s School of Public Health where biostatistics is used to accelerate health research globally including several collaborative projects across Africa. She aims to continue empowering female statisticians through teaching, supervision, collaborations and networking.

Batidzirai paid tribute to her parents and credited her children as her greatest inspiration – although she is the first to admit that having twin boys while in the throes of her PhD was not easy! She also thanked her supervisors, Professor Samuel Manda and Professor Henry Mwambi for their tremendous support.

‘From the word go, I noticed that Jesca was passionate about statistics and its application to real life problems,’ said Mwambi. ‘It was therefore not a surprise that she managed to tackle a very interesting real problem on the formation and dissolution of marital unions under the realm of multivariate discrete-time survival with recurrent event models, despite the hurdles she encountered on the way. I am sure she will be a good example and mentor to other upcoming female statisticians to aim for higher achievements in their studies, a role she has already taken on.’

Said Batidzirai: ‘As a UKZN academic employee, it was natural for me to pursue my PhD at the University where knowledgeable supervisors who are experts in my field are readily accessible.

‘Moreover, UKZN provided invaluable support throughout my doctoral journey, ensuring its successful completion. I loved and enjoyed the environment as it gave me an opportunity to conduct some ground-breaking statistical research that contributed significantly to the improvement of the health and wellbeing of society.’

Words: Sally Frost

Photograph: Sethu Dlamini