College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

Professor Nurtures Talent in Statistics

Professor of Applied Statistics in the School of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science (SMSCS), Temesgen Zewotir, has established himself as a top researcher and a developer of young talent in the Discipline of Statistics as he pursues research and training in Data Science and Applied Statistics.

Originally from Bahir Dar in Ethiopia, Zewotir joined UKZN in 2003 as a senior lecturer in Statistics and is now a full professor in Applied Statistics. He obtained his undergraduate and honours degrees in Mathematics from Asmara University, and his Masters and PhD in Mathematical Statistics from the University of Addis Ababa and University of the Witwatersrand, respectively. He worked at the National University of Lesotho and Addis Ababa University before joining UKZN.

Zewotir’s research focus in Applied Statistics and Data Science covers a range of multidisciplinary applications. He is particularly interested in the abundance of data that could accelerate the development and refinement of basic research and theories, and has interacted with and consulted several postgraduate students, researchers, practitioners and companies in agriculture, business, life sciences, education, health, medicine, economics, management, and social sciences. His approach is characterised by unpicking the innate complexity of real-world datasets to reveal realities that affect how organisations and systems run.

With over 115 publications in accredited, peer-reviewed journals and 15 doctoral and multiple masters theses supervised, Zewotir has a strong track record in research and supervision, and is a nationally- and internationally-recognised expert in statistics methods and applications. In 2020, he was recognised by the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science for his outstanding research productivity in the SMSCS.

For his work in statistical methods and statistical education, Zewotir is an elected member of the International Statistical Institute (ISI), the highest international recognition accorded to established statisticians who have made significant contributions to their profession, and a rare honour for statisticians from developing countries. He is also a member of the ISI Data Science Working Group.

A National Research Foundation rated scientist, Zewotir has contributed his expertise to the World Bank, and the Inter-University Council of East Africa for the African Higher Education Centers of Excellence Project. He is an international advisory board member for both the African Center of Excellence in Data Science and the Integrated Demographic and Health Series, and regularly reviews articles for national and international journals.

Together with Dean and Head of the SMSCS Professor Delia North, Zewotir has been involved in planning and establishing the Statistical Analysis System (SAS) Industry Unit in the SMSCS to train students through a Bachelor of Science Honours, Postgraduate Diploma and Masters in Data Science. Zewotir, who heads the Unit, believes it will train statisticians who are versatile and can add problem-solving value to the challenge of comprehending enormous volumes of data and extracting important information.

‘In Africa, statistical scientific knowledge is being perceived with increasing positivity by the public, yet while we produce considerable numbers of graduates in statistics on the continent, they have little real-world experience to help them fill the acute shortage of big data, data science and analytics-skilled professionals,’ he said.

‘We have been planning tirelessly to equip graduates with the knowledge and skills to correct this disconnect between the skills provided by the degree and the requirements of industry, and to assist graduates in becoming national and international leaders in statistics.’

The industry unit has not only increased in-house staff capacity for training data scientists in the SMSCS, but also raised the profile of African data science scholarship. Offering world-class data science for business training at the University’s Westville campus, in 2021 it will accept up to 25 masters and 25 postgraduate diploma students. Students have the unique opportunity to apply their theoretical learning to practical, industry-identified problems and present their solutions to industry partners for feedback, as well as participate in work-based learning opportunities and internships.

The Discipline’s partnership with various industries has also seen the development and continuous improvement of an industry-focused professional master’s degree and postgraduate diploma in Data Science, as well as postgraduate programmes in Data Science, Statistics, Quantitative Risk Management and Customer Intelligence Analytics. The Unit contributes to the development of curricula and shares data science and data-driven thinking training and learning expertise across multiple schools at UKZN, and offers data science and data analytics workshops, short courses, training events, and congresses.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Supplied