Dr Merrill van der Walt, Data Scientist at Strate, knows all about big data


What does the public need to know about big data in financial markets?

Big Data adds an extra dimension of intelligence to the financial markets. It has the capability of uncovering unknown trends, unknown relationships and unknown correlations and in bringing the unknown to the surface, allowing the possibility of informing the markets differently to how they are currently informed. Big Data also has the capability of being able to formulate predictive models, or forecasting, for the markets.

It’s large-scale longitudinal trend analysis capability allows us to look at trends across time with all the data involved rather than pieces of data, to get a complete aerial view.

What do you find intriguing about Big Data?

It’s the Science and the Math behind it that is so intriguing, because we are always driven by an innate curiosity. There are deep neural networks of information lying dormant, and the potential of bringing that to the surface is extremely intriguing for me. The completeness of the data set can now be investigated, rather than a focus on certain fields only.

Tell us about the work you do on your GIS database?

We managed to record all the fossils from South Africa, especially over an extinction event that happened between the Permian and the Triassic, which was the greatest extinction event that ever hit the planet. 95% of life on earth was wiped out and we are able to see this in the pattern of the fossils on the GIS. It was the first of its kind globally and it has created not only an archive of fossils, but also a cyber-museum of where these fossils are found in their space and in their time.

You must be proud to have been part of the team awarded for their scientific contribution to the understanding of the origins of humankind!

Yes, we were awarded the scientific team award by the National Research Foundation because of the role of Rising Star.

It’s shown that, where before we always believed the pathway to humankind was a bit of a linear thing, we now see it was a very opposite of that. It was a very honourable achievement because it was a team that worked very differently to the past approach to science—its philosophy was open source. All the 3D scans were freely available to anyone who wanted to see it.

I was responsible for organising a workshop and invited 30 emerging scientists from around the world, where we were cloistered in the fossil vault for a month.

How did your parents inspire you to succeed academically?

We were allowed eccentricity of thought, we were allowed to investigate whatever topic we wanted to, and a lack of fear was instilled in us and an optimism and belief that whatever you learn cannot be taken from you. When I was young, my goal was to actually be an astronaut, and then I wanted to be a scientist. But I also loved words and I love art and there’s a definite link between math, music and art.

Why is education important for women?

Education is the only thing that cannot be taken from you and it’s the only thing that widens your thought processes, giving you opportunity out of whatever unfortunate circumstance that you might have been born into. Women have the ability to understand maths, science and technology so strongly but, because of conditioning (home or society), by the time a girl reaches the age of 9 or 10 she believes this is something they cannot do. That’s a tragedy, and that needs to change.

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