‘Missing data’ makes biometry lecturer tick

Johané Nienkemper-Swanepoel, second from right, after receiving the Helga and Wolfgang Gaul Stiftung Award at the International Federation of Classification Societies conference in Japan. She is pictured here with Professor Shizuhiko Nishisato of the University of Toronto, Helga Gaul and Professor Wolfgang Gaul.

Johanéa Nienkemper-Swanepoel is a member of that rare breed of scientists who do research to help others do their own investigative work more thoroughly.

This PhD student and lecturer at Stellenbosch University uses her skills in statistics, applied mathematics and computer programming to write appropriate software with which to handle and visualise incomplete or missing data.

These visualisation tools will help other researchers make as much sense as possible from the data they have painstakingly collected, even when some much-needed bits of information are missing.

“By using applicable techniques to handle the issue of missing bits of data, it is quite possible to maintain and extract more information from for instance an incomplete questionnaire. It means that researchers do not have to make do with a smaller sample set that only includes complete blocks of data,” explains Ms Nienkemper-Swanepoel.

She invited faculty members to provide her with relevant data that they would like to put to better use.

In July, the efforts of this biometry lecturer in the Department of Genetics was recognised through the Helga and Wolfgang Gaul Stiftung Award worth 2 000 Euros.

It is awarded biennially by the International Federation of Classification Societies (IFCS) to an outstanding researcher younger than 30. Ms Nienkemper-Swanepoel has just returned from Japan where she presented some of her research at the IFCS 2017 conference.

At the award ceremony, she also had the honour of meeting Professor Wolfgang Gaul, an eminent German academic, and his wife, Helga.

Ms Nienkemper-Swanepoel’s interest in mathematical conundrums stems from the inspirational extra maths classes she received in high school.

She also remembers fondly how she used her basic knowledge of mathematics to complete her first science fair project in Grade 7 to establish whether there is a link between handwriting skills and the amount of time babies spend lying on their tummies.

“Looking back, this was a clear indication that I would one day become a researcher, passionate about the application of the subject of statistics,” she said.

It would, however, be a mistake to typecast Ms Nienkemper-Swanepoel into the typical role of a maths boffin. Before setting her mind on studies in mathematical sciences at the University of the Free State, she played with the idea of studying medicine and even drama.

At school at C & N Meisieskool Oranje in Bloemfontein, she received Free State colours for tap dancing, and also won six medals at the World Championship of Performing Arts in Los Angeles. This avid performer was also vice-head of the Bloemfontein Children’s Choir.

During her years at the University of the Free State (UFS), she still found the time to be her residence’s cultural representative, and to be part of the women’s A Capella group Amaranth Echo which came 5th in the international Varsity Vocals competition in New York in 2009. The group went on to launch a CD in 2011.

Ms Nienkemper-Swanepoel’s decision to combine her studies with her passion for chamber choir music during her honours year paid off. She went on to receive the Senate Medal for the best honours degree student at the University of the Free State in 2012.

In 2011, she was the youngest presenter at the South African Statistical Association (SASA) annual conference.

She had the opportunity to explain to leaders in her field how to use a statistical method called paired comparisons to determine the optimal position in which members of an acappella group should stand to get their overall intonation, dynamics and balance just right.

She didn’t miss a beat when starting off her MSc Mathematical Statistics at UFS. It only took her 18 months to complete her investigations on how to handle missing values in multivariate categorical data sets. She focused on how to rebuild incomplete questionnaires with missing bits of information in such a way that credible results could be obtained from the updated data. After receiving first prize for the annual best postgraduate paper submitted to SASA, she subsequently presented her work at the 60th International Statistics Institute (ISI) World Statistics Congress 2015 in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

Her research has subsequently taken her to Spain, Italy and Portugal for conferences, and has allowed her to publish in the Journal of Classification.

This member of SASA enjoys collaborating with colleagues in the Stellenbosch University Department of Statistics on matters of interest.

On an international platform, she has been elected to represent SASA’s Multivariate Data Analysis special interest group (MDAG) on the council of the IFCS.

“It is an exciting opportunity to represent South Africa at meetings, to engage with fellow council members and to create awareness of the MDAG activities and the approaches to applying and teaching classification methods at South African universities,” says Ms Nienkemper-Swanepoel, who hopes that she will receive her PhD degree in mathematical statistics by 2019.

“I have received invaluable support and mentorship from my supervisors, Prof Nië* le Roux and Prof Sugnet Lubbe of the Department of Statistics and Actuarial Science at Stellenbosch University.

“I will always be indebted to them for the time they invest in my future,” said Ms Nienkemper-Swanepoel.

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