First Black SA Woman to Graduate with a PhD in Statistics at UKZN

Dr Nonhlanhla Yende-Zuma has become the first Black South African woman to graduate with a PhD in Statistics at UKZN.

Her PhD, titled: Adjusting the Effect of Integrating Antiretroviral Therapy and Tuberculosis Treatment on Mortality for Non-Compliance: An Instrumental Variables Analysis Using a Time-varying Exposure, was supervised by Professor Henry Mwambi of UKZN and Professor Stijn Vansteelandt of Ghent University in Belgium.

Yende-Zuma is currently Head Biostatistician at the world-renowned Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA), where she has accumulated vast experience in analysing clinical trials data and design of such studies.

‘In her PhD, Nonhlanhla focused on the very important public health problem of when best to start treatment for HIV patients co-infected with TB,’ explained Mwambi. ‘To deal with treatment non-compliance in the CAPRISA SAPiT trial, her work advanced instrumental variables theory to time-varying exposures and time-to-event outcomes.’

This novel extension has led to original research articles in the prestigious journal Epidemiology, and the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

Yende-Zuma is already an alumnus of UKZN, having received her BSc, BScHons and MSc degrees from the University. ‘The enthusiasm shown by the UKZN Statistics department, and especially Professor Mwambi towards biostatistics, motivated me to continue partnering with them for my PhD,’ she said.

Yende-Zuma’s research contributes new knowledge to biostatistics literature and is relevant because it expresses what the treatment effect would be under perfect compliance, which appeals to patients and clinicians who are interested in the benefits of initiating and complying with the treatment that patients received.

‘I have been working in clinical trials research for the past 11 years and I realised there is a gap in the way we analyse clinical trials,’ she said. ‘The analytical aspect that resonates with patients and clinicians was still missing.’

Yende-Zuma said that since biostatistics (and statistics in general) was a scarce skill in South Africa, she planned to mentor as many young biostatisticians as possible, especially young women. ‘I would like to encourage young women to dream big and work hard,’ she said. ‘There are no limitations to what you can achieve if you believe in yourself and work hard.’

Yende-Zuma thanked a number of people for their support and encouragement, including Professor Mwambi for his excellent supervision; CAPRISA for the employment and continuous mentoring they offered; and her uncle ‘who planted the seed to study further and encouraged me to do well in high school even though I was at a school in a rural area with very limited resources.’

‘At a young age, I acquired the strength to motivate myself and that has kept me going and has pushed me to achieve more than what I ever dreamt of,’ said Yende-Zuma, who in her spare time likes to read books, watch comedy movies and read to her seven-year-old daughter.

Words: Sally Frost 

Photograph: Gugu Mqadi