Winning Women: Inside the mind of a freethinker

Merrill van der Walt. Picture: Tebogo Letsie
Merrill van der Walt. Picture: Tebogo Letsie

From fossils to finance – that’s been the career trajectory of Dr Merrill van der Walt, a palaeontologist until recently. She is now a statistician with a difference.

Instead of studying fossils that are millions of years old, or working at the Evolutionary Studies Institute, which she set up at Wits, she’s concentrating her formidable mind on analysing statistics to do with buying and selling shares.

She’s moved her focus from the massive extinction event about 250 million years ago to analysing the effect of economic bangs and how they affect the way we trade on the JSE.

Strate, a 45% JSE-owned company, was formed 17 years ago to guarantee the settlement of share transactions. It was done solely on paper and was open to fraud.

Strate, the central securities depository, suggested that the market be completely dematerialised, “so that we have custody of shares on a digital platform. It has brought trust and tighter regulation to the market.”

This is due to Strate handling post-settlement for trades, guaranteeing transactions and the sale of shares.

The volume of transactions a day is huge, over 300 000, which has created a massive amount of data.

It’s been accumulating for nearly two decades in three large data warehouses.

Strate was determined to do something with it, for today information is the new gold.

Van der Walt was asked to turn it “into meaningful insights”.

In time, the data analyst will be able to determine trends, such as a particular company’s share movement historically.

“The JSE obtains this information too, but its main focus is the day-to-day trading platform. We’re hoping to find patterns and extrapolate them into the future, providing a predictive model.”

Strate might be able to sell its data products – such as forecasting movements in a particular sector – via mobile tablets or web portals. “So, you would go to the app on your cellphone, which we’ve called Finatic @ Strate, and see visually rich infographics instead of a flat pie chart,” explains Van der Walt.

This will empower ordinary people to trade as individuals on share platforms, rather than relying on a broker or a fund manager.

“Our intention is to provide a snapshot of SA trading information to individuals, as a product.”

Van der Walt surprised Strate when she applied for her current position, saying in her interview that she knew nothing of finance but that the principles of applying statistics, whether to fossils or money, are the same.

“I thought it would be an advantage to have someone with fresh eyes and no emotional connection to finance, and I told Strate this,” she says.

But she was equally surprised when she learnt she had the position, “because academia is accommodating of eccentric people”, she says. “However, within two minutes of arriving here I fitted in. I do love stats, the purity of it and that there’s no emotion involved with big data.”

Van der Walt is excited by the idea of finding knowledge and truth in things that are hidden.

The Joburg-raised, Wits University-educated mother of three children, who was widowed a few years ago, has spent her adult working life at Wits.

Since March 2006, she has worked at its Origins Centre, at the Bernard Price Institute for Palaeontological Research, and she was project manager at its Evolutionary Studies Institute.

She was part of Professor Lee Berger’s team that discovered Homo naledi in the Cradle of Humankind in 2013.

She chuckles when she says that she decided to go into the field of palaeontology, “because I used to be a teacher, earning very little money. The funding for a PhD was more than my salary.”

She attributes her lively mind to her pilot father, “an aeronautical engineer”, who was always interested in science. She was only seven years old when he tried to explain the theory of relativity to her.

Bringing up three children under 17 alone, as well as battling a chronic illness, doesn’t leave much time for relaxation, but she loves music and dancing, “and I enjoy going places with the kids”.

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