How a teacher’s gift spurred me on to a PhD in maths at 32

Saturday January 6 2018

Dr Beth Kiratu, who graduated with a PhD in Pure Mathematics from the University of Nairobi on December 22 at the age of 32. She became the first Kenyan woman to get such a degree from the university. PHOTO| COURTESY

Dr Beth Kiratu, who graduated with a PhD in Pure Mathematics from the University of Nairobi on December 22 at the age of 32. She became the first Kenyan woman to get such a degree from the university. PHOTO| COURTESY 

By KAARA WAINAINA

Looking at Beth Nyambura Kiratu, one would not know that she quietly broke a glass ceiling in academia.

On December 22, the 32-year-old was among 6,600 students who graduated from the University of Nairobi with various degrees, diplomas, fellowships and PhDs.

She was one of the 61 who were awarded a PhD. However, she was the only woman who was awarded a doctorate in Pure Mathematics that day, becoming the first in Kenya to attain this honour from the University of Nairobi. Her thesis focused on spectral properties of operators in Hilbert spaces.

Only two others, both men, attained the same honour.

“It all started while I was in class four in Maombi Primary School in Kabazi, Nakuru County,” says Dr Kiratu of her academic journey. “Our maths teacher, Mrs Githongo, promised a prize for anyone who would score above 90 marks in our end-of-term mathematics exam. I was determined to earn the undisclosed award.”

She put her young mind to work and, sure enough, she hit the 90 per cent mark along with a boy in the same class. For their effort, they each received Sh400. Beth spent her money on a new pair of shoes.

“Getting that prize and being able to buy myself a pair of shoes at that early age really impacted my attitude towards education. It, in a way, proved to me that education was a very good thing and deepened my affection towards maths,” she says

From then on, there was no turning back. Initially, she was determined to become a pilot like her father, who was flying for the military.

Her KCPE score was, however, somewhat discouraging, she scored 409 out of 700 marks. She could only enrol at a local missionary school. That was how she ended up at Subukia Girls High School, now St Yermo Girls High School.

HELPED START A MATHEMATICS CLUB

By the time she got to Form Two, she helped start a mathematics club. Besides helping her school mates with difficult sums, she also took part in maths symposiums, often emerging as a regional champion. Later in high school, Beth changed her career preference to Electrical Engineering, because she enjoyed maths and physics.

She scored an A- in her KCSE exams and was admitted at the University of Nairobi to study Building Economics, a course she found not having “sufficient maths,” as she puts it. She changed her course and enrolled in the mathematics and statistics class, and become one of only five girls in the class of 17.

Beth graduated in 2008 with a First Class honours degree and the university awarded her a scholarship to pursue a Masters of Science in Pure Mathematics. In 2013, she was back in class after being awarded yet another scholarship by the Gandhi Smarak Nidhi Fund to study for her PhD in Pure Mathematics.

Dr Kiratu believes there are no courses for men and women. What is critical, she says, is for young people to discover their strong areas early and focus to do well in these.

Now, she is dedicating the next few years to teaching mathematics at the university.

“I am very passionate to teach,” she says. “I will also focus on raising my young family. Hopefully I’ll be a widely published Associate Professor in Mathematics in 10 years.”