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Long journey to PhD in mathematics for former Westridge learner
Author: Wiida Fourie-Basson
Published: 16/12/2020

When Dr Lesley Wessels walked over the stage this week to receive her doctoral degree in mathematics, it will be the end of a long journey that started when she was still a learner at Westridge Senior Secondary School in Mitchell's Plain.

Dr Wessels is one of the 21 PhD graduates in the Faculty of Science to receive their degrees in person during SU's December graduation ceremonies.

“I am the fourth of five children, and my eldest brother started with this BSc-degree in Mathematics and Computer Science at the University of the Western Cape by the time I started with high school. My father decided I should follow in my brother's footsteps. My parents were very involved in our future plans, as both of them attended school only until Grade 8. That was still the days when you could obtain a good work with only a Standard 8-certificate," she explains.

“They wanted a better life for their children, and my father thought a career in sciences was a good option. My brother eventually went into IT, but my preference was for Mathematics."

In 2001 she completed her MSc in Mathematics at UWC, specialising in Abstract Algebra: “UWC was like my second home, and I developed as human being," she recounts.

But in 2002 she received an e-mail from Prof Barry Green from Stellenbosch University with an invitation to do a PhD in Number Theory at SU under his guidance. While she was very happy at UWC, she was eager to embrace this new opportunity.

But that decision took her on a path away from her first passion. More than ten years and three study leaders later, she realised she made a huge mistake to shift her research focus from Abstract Algebra (her original interest) to Number Theory.

In 2007 she was appointed as a junior lecturer in the Department of Mathematical Sciences, on condition that she will complete her PhD-degree. But it was only in 2014 that she redefined herself and returned to her first love, Abstract Algebra.

“I expected my departmental head, Prof Ingrid Rewitzky, and my divisional head, Prof Florian Breuer, to be deeply disappointed in me. But to the contrary! They were rather relieved that I have finally taken control of my own career. I am also grateful towards my mentor, Prof Marina Rautenbach, for her support during this time."

She finally completed her thesis under Dr Karin Howell, herself an Algebraist.

“Dr Howell could be firm but in a very diplomatic manner. Apart from sharing her knowledge of Algebra with me, I also acquired many skills from her, especially with regard to time planning. She has a family, with two children in primary school, and she is a lecturer who often get nominated by first year students as the lecturer that inspired them the most. Then she is also founder and organiser of the annual African Women in Mathematics (AWiM) conference, and she is study leader to a number of postgraduate students. I am still left speechless when I think about how she gets is all done, and doing it so well!"

 She is deeply grateful that she has finally managed to complete this long journey, and is looking forward to expand on her field of speciality in Algebra.

“For my MSc-degree my mini-thesis focused on coding theory. At the last AWiM-conference I met a coding theoretician from Sol Plaatjies University. We plan to start work on a new project in December, and I cannot wait to get started."

“I still have so much to learn, but I feel reassured that there are so many people in my environment who are willing to support me," she concludes.

On the photo above, Dr Lesley Wessels with her proud parents, George and Cecilia Wessels, after the graduation ceremony on 16 December 2020. Photo: Stefan Els