College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

UKZN staff member and PhD Statistics graduate, Dr Danielle Roberts.

PhD for Powerhouse Statistician

Statistics lecturer, Dr Danielle Roberts is celebrating graduating with her PhD after the home-grown applied statistician completed her research on the relationship between anaemia and malaria in young children that could contribute to improved public health strategies in sub-Saharan Africa.

Having always been interested in public health, inspired partly by having a nurse for a grandmother, Roberts’ childhood dream was to become a Medical doctor. However, the Durban local’s love and aptitude for mathematics took her in a different direction.

Choosing to study at UKZN because of its proximity to home, from her first year Roberts was taken with the discipline of Statistics due to her lecturers’ passion for the subject. She completed her Bachelor of Science in Applied Mathematics and Statistics, going on to an Honours degree in Statistics.

Spurred on by Professor Delia North, Roberts then registered for a Master’s in Statistics, taking what she saw as a natural shift in applying the science to public health and examining malaria in young children.

During that project, Roberts met with epidemiologists working in public health in Africa and, one suggested examining anaemia – a neglected area of study – alongside malaria.

Supervised by her colleague and mentor Professor Temesgen Zewotir in the School of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science (SMSCS), Roberts built on her master’s work by developing advanced statistical methodologies to investigate the co-morbidity of childhood anaemia and malaria in four African countries.

These two health challenges are among the leading causes of morbidity and mortality in children under the age of five.

Roberts explored risk factors and used spatial modelling to identify high risk districts for the two ailments, which could help policy makers to target the correct set of interventions or prevent the use of incorrect interventions for anaemia and malaria control and prevention. In countries with limited health system resources, it could also assist targeted resource allocation.

‘For me, the most interesting application of biostatistics is discovering the spatial patterns of the risk of diseases,’ said Roberts. ‘At the moment, this is a common application to identify hot spots of COVID-19 outbreaks and vulnerable communities.’

Roberts was drawn to academia by her supervisors and mentors who provided the opportunity for her to gain experience lecturing and supervising students during her postgraduate studies and when she joined the permanent staff at UKZN, leading her to discover her passion for academia. She found the field of statistics flexible, allowing for shifts in focus as it is applied to an expansive range of topics.

She has already supervised six postgraduate students to completion, is currently supervising four postgraduate students, and coordinates the master’s and postgraduate diploma programmes in data science in the SMSCS.

‘In my teaching I try to keep the broad application of what is being taught open to students’ interests, potential career paths and current work,’ she said.

Roberts teaches several modules including those on machine learning.

‘It is a new field for me, so as I am teaching I am learning new skills, and this has guided my new research interest in machine learning within biostatistics and its application,’ said Roberts.

Driven by her mentors and role models including North and Zewotir, whom Roberts described as family, she hopes to inspire a love for statistics in her students. Despite the heavy workload as she develops new curriculum content, she said it is rewarding to see students comprehend the knowledge taught.

Over and above her research and teaching, Roberts explores innovation in her work; she created a web-based app to gather application information from prospective postgraduate diploma students, and has an interest in programming and creating an interactive dashboard for visualisation of data. She has also participated in short course facilitation, analytics games competitions and Women in Analytics events.

Roberts acknowledged Zewotir for his humility and support, saying his guidance provided a fresh perspective on her work and made her doctorate feel achievable. She also thanked her family for their unconditional love and support, calling them a driving force behind her success.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Rajesh Jantilal