Mathematically Speaking...

Wednesday March 18 2020

Viola is a lecturer at JKUAT. PHOTO |ROSE ODENGO


“Make yourselves indispensable,” Viona Ojiambo’s father would often tell her and her siblings.

These words have been a lifelong guide to excellence for the 30-year-old mathematician.

Viona grew up in Kahawa West, Nairobi County. Her father was a mathematics teacher at Nairobi Technical Training Institute, then a secondary school called Technical High school in Nairobi. Her father’s life began humbly as a fisherman. He had experienced the power of hard work and self-drive, and instilled these qualities in Viona and her five siblings, besides taking keen interest in their academic performance.

Mathematics for Viona came naturally, a factor she attributes to her father. To her, a mathematical equation was an exciting journey of discovery.

“Many people see big equations as complicated, but I ask myself, what is the secret behind it and how can I create a big equation like this?” She says.

Viona does admit that she struggled with languages in school, which affected her overall grades. Observing this, her parents encouraged her to focus on what she was good at, which was math, to improve her overall school grades, support Viona is grateful for.

On graduation from Pangani Girls High School in 2005, she joined Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) where she pursued an undergraduate degree in Mathematics and Computer Science, graduating in 2011.

She gives credit to Dr Duncan Kioi and Prof Matthew Kinyanjui, both mathematics lecturers who encouraged her to pursue her specialisation further with a Masters in Science in Applied Science at the same university, graduating in 2015.

As Viona pursued her Master’s Degree, she began to offer support to some of her lecturers, instructing classes, it was then that she fell in love with teaching.

Now, just as her lecturers inspired her, she is offering the same inspiration to the next generation of mathematicians, instructing undergraduates in mathematics at JKUAT.

An average working day for her starts at 4am or 5am and ends between 5am and 6pm, when she calls it a day and heads home to spend time with her three children.

“I believe in utilising the day hours well. Your brain can’t function when you’re tired, you need to rest,” she emphasises.

Her day is split between research, preparing for classes, instructing, marking assignments and setting exams, like most in academia. Viona also builds on her new research on her PhD, made possible through a scholarship from the Pan African University Institute for Basic Sciences, Technology and Innovation (PAUSTI). Her thesis is on the mathematical modeling of silica growth in geothermal pipes, in a field known as fluid mechanics.

Fluid mechanics is the study in Physics of forces and flow within fluids such as liquids, gases and plasma (such as in human blood). 

For example, before buildings or drainage are constructed, a mathematician should develop a simulation of the flow of water, sewage and other gases or fluids from the building prior to construction.

This provides the engineer with perfect dimensions for the pipes he needs for a building’s drainage to avoid damage or even collapse of buildings due to leakage or cracks from pressure or corrosion. Viona’s research explores the understanding of a common problem in geothermal pipes that causes corrosion, affects the efficiency of the geothermal pipes and in return increases the cost of maintenance of these pipes.

Her research aims to find a way of resolving this problem by better understanding the cause of the silica growth.


What is the difference between Pure and Applied Mathematics?

Pure mathematics is the theory of mathematics. Ideally, it is explaining math in English form to understand the general concepts of the science of math. Applied mathematics, as the name suggests, you apply your knowledge of math to various disciplines such as medicine, physics and engineering, to come up with a specified solution.


Many are convinced math is hard. How can we change this perception?

The approach teachers take makes it very abstract. The best way to make mathematics exciting is to make it more practical. For example, X means cars or Y means the cost of labour. When you place these on a graph and make the derivative more relatable, the concepts are easier to grasp. 


What does one need to build a career in applied mathematics?

You need an undergraduate degree in applied mathematics and explore an area of specialty in other scientific fields such as physics and medicine.


How can we get more girls to build a career in Applied Mathematics?

There are more girls enrolling now. People used to call JKUAT - Juja boys because the ratio of men to women was very high, but this is changing. Now in my average class of 180 students, women make up 40-50 per cent of the class.

I believe the more we talk about and share stories of women in these fields the more we will encourage more women.


What other careers can one pursue with a degree or Master’s in Applied Mathematics?

You need to place yourself in another discipline so that you can apply your mathematics in that discipline.

For example, if interested in mathematical modeling of diseases, you can study a short course in epidemiology, the branch of medicine which deals with the incidence, distribution, and possible control of diseases and other factors relating to health.

With your bachelors of science in applied mathematics, you will be able create solutions in this field. You can apply this in medicine, physics, engineering, computer science, statistics, actuarial science, chemistry and psychology.


What is the average income of a professor in Applied mathematics?

It is an average of Sh100, 000 to Sh120, 000 net monthly, but this can go higher based on tenure, experience and qualifications.


What is your advice to young girls interested in building careers in STEM?

Be committed, focused and dedicated to achieving and realising your dreams. There is always room for you out there, and at the top. The best of you is on the way, so put more effort, more input, resilience and believe in yourself and your dream and seek the brighter part of life in all things.