Stellenbosch University
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Young Maties mathematician in a class of his own
Author: Wiida Fourie-Basson
Published: 12/12/2014

Thomas Weighill (24), an MSc student in Mathematics at Stellenbosch University (SU), , has received two of the most prestigious academic awards a university can bestow on a student.

During the Faculty of Science's graduation ceremony on Thursday 11 December 2014, Thomas was awarded both the coveted Chancellor's medal and the S2A3 medal for the most outstanding research thesis on MSc level in the natural, engineering and medical sciences.

Thomas, a former Paarl Boys High School pupil, managed to sustain an average of 91,1% during his six years of study at SU. His MSc thesis in Mathematics, for which he obtained a final mark of 97%, was accepted without any revisions by three external international examiners.

Described as a student with "an exceptional mind" and "in a class of his own", Thomas opted for an MSc in Mathematics after he completed his degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering, cum laude, in 2012. His interest in Mathematics, and specifically category theory, was piqued after he completed the Foundations of Abstract Mathematics course in 2011. Despite his busy lecture schedule at Engineering, he attended this course in the evenings. The course was introduced by Prof Ingrid Rewitzky and Prof Zurab Janelidze from the Department of Mathematical Sciences to give students insight into the conceptual view of modern mathematics. The course happened to alter Thomas' career path.

Prof Janelidze, who specialises in categorical algebra, suggested to Thomas to try to read the famous graduate textbook in category theory, written by its co-founder, Saunders Mac Lane. "Thomas engaged with this textbook and read and deeply understood the first few chapters in a couple of months, without much difficulty. This is exceptional  please note that the book is called 'Categories for the Working Mathematician'," says Prof Janelidze.  

Category theory is an advanced field of mathematics which studies structures through relationships between them. It provides an abstract theory of structures and of systems of structures. 

In order for him to enrol for an MSc in Mathematics in 2013, Thomas had to informally follow six postgraduate modules during the first year of his studies. He obtained 100% in three of these, and more than 90% in the rest.

"That Thomas obtained such stellar marks for modules that rely heavily on undergraduate mathematics modules, which he had never followed, is a reflection of his truly exceptional intellect," remarks Prof Janelidze.

By the end of 2013, Thomas had co-authored three papers with Prof Janelidze. The first of these papers has appeared in a leading international journal in the field, Theory and Applications of Categories. The results of his research have been presented at seven national and international conferences, including the International Category Theory Conference which took place in Australia in July 2013, regarded as the most important conference in category theory.  

Prof Janelidze says Thomas succeeded in obtaining important results in a new direction of research in categorical algebra, with possible future applications in computer science and classical algebra: "This is a very advanced field of research which no-one has explored before. Thomas' thesis presents a new perspective on a problem, posed in 1950 by Saunders Mac Lane, in a paper which laid the foundations to the field of categorical algebra." Prof Janelidze adds.

The three examiners were unanimous in their praise for his work and described it as "among the very best that I have examined", "really outstanding" and "the results are deep, original and absolutely interesting, opening up a new frontier".

Prof Ingrid Rewitzky, executive head of the Department of Mathematical Sciences at SU, says Thomas has an exceptional mind: "He is capable of thoroughly understanding abstract concepts and constructions in pure mathematics and of producing ingenious solutions to complex problems."

During his studies at SU, Thomas actively participated in student life. He served on the Engineering Student Council, the Academic Affairs Council and the Maties Community Service marketing team. He was also editor of the Eendrag residence newspaper, Vires Unitatis, and was a tutor in the undergraduate Mathematical Sciences programme.

Despite a prestigious grant offered to him for pursuing a PhD in central Europe, Thomas decided to head for Tennessee in the United States to accompany his wife Deborah Ann Weighill. She also graduated in 2014 with an MSc (cum laude) in Grapevine and Wine Biotechnology. She is a former student in the biomathematics stream of the Mathematical Sciences programme at SU, and will pursue a PhD in Energy Science and Engineering at the University of Tennessee. Thomas has been accepted for a PhD program in Mathematics at the same university, and was offered to be funded by a Graduate Research Assistantship.

The research for his MSc was funded by the National Research Foundation and the MIH Media Lab at Stellenbosch University. Thomas is the first student in pure mathematics to be awarded an MIH Media Lab bursary.

Thomas will keep ties with SU through the Centre of Mathematical Structures that is being established in the Department of Mathematical Sciences.

More about the Chancellor's medal

The Chancellor's medal was instituted in 1961 to recognise students who persistently performed well over the four to seven years of studies at SU. Both academic merit and participation in student life are taken into account. This will be the sixth time since the medal was instituted 53 years ago that it has been awarded to a Mathematics student. The last time was in 1972.

More about the S2A3 medal

The S2A3 medal was instituted in 1981 and is awarded by the Southern Africa Association for the Advancement of Science (S2A3) for original research at Masters level in the natural, medical and engineering sciences at South African universities. Each university may make one award every year. The Association was founded in 1902, making it one of the oldest scientific organisations in South Africa.

On the photo, Thomas Weighill (left) with his study leader, Prof Zurab Janelidze.



Titus OrwaTitus Orwa2014-12-21T08:03:46ZCongratulations Thomas! Good luck in your PhD.