The Incredible Journey of Mesias Alfeus: From Namibia to UTS
So you think you have faced challenges in your life. Spare a thought for Mesias Alfeus who has just completed his PhD in quantitative finance at UTS. In his life so far he has managed to progress from a small village in northern Namibia where he faced discrimination and bullying to educate himself, pursue a passion for mathematics that led him all the way to Australia to do his PhD at UTS. He is now entering a new chapter in his life as he takes up a position as a lecturer in mathematics at the University of Wollongong. Not bad for someone who failed his first semester of his first year at primary school.
Mesias story starts in the small village of Onamutai in northern Namibia. Born out of wedlock and one of six siblings on his mother’s side and a staggering 38 siblings on his father’s side. At the age of three months he was shipped off to the nearby village of Okadila to be raised by his great grandmother, Paulina Kalomho Wanghondeli who would live to the grand old age of 103. Mesias states he had "little fun" growing up in a large household for a "quiet boy who did not interact with many people". As a young boy he was out chopping firewood one day with a housemate when he fell out of a tree. Everybody thought he was dead. Taken to the nearest hospital it was found he was still alive but he spent the next seven days in the intensive care unit. On recovering he faced further hurdles.
It was challenging for me growing up in the poor village of Okadila where people used to see me through the lens of my shortcomings. I used to be brutally treated and called bad names especially in the absence of my great grandmother. My great grandmother would then offer me hope, she was very strict about how she wanted me to live my life and how I should embrace the love of God. She would take me to church and read the bible with me when I was young. Oftentimes in my loneliness, I would draw closer to God and would pray and worship God. When I walked around the village herding livestock, I would think about life in general and completing my studies one day. I was quite ambitious and wanted to be well educated. I would carry my books with me while cattle herding. At times, the animals would get into people’s fields while I was studying and I would be beaten for allowing that to happen.
His great grandmother was the defining and much loved influence in his early years. She gave him hope and helped him to deal with the trials and tribulations he was faced with growing up. Life was to be no easier when he was finally able to start his schooling.
I began grade one at Okadila-West Primary School. It was difficult going to school in the village because of the responsibility I had for herding livestock. I used to be absent from school for several days a week due to the responsibility bestowed upon me. As a result, I failed the first semester of grade one but my great grandmother made sure I performed better in the second semester.
His love of mathematics was formed playing the traditional game “Owela womanghete” (heavily involving mathematical thinking) with his great grandmother at home. He became keen at mathematics and was encouraged by his teachers. His first desire was to become a teacher.
Because the only professional workers in the village were teachers, I desired to become a teacher one day.
But his natural abilities in mathematics were recognised by his teachers and he was encouraged to study science. So Mesias, having been awarded a scholarship by the Ministry of Mines and Energy found himself moving to the capital, Windhoek, to commence his undergraduate studies in mathematics and physics at the University of Namibia in 2009. He was mentored by Associate Professor Frednard Gideon and Dr Martin M. Mugochi. During his final year he won the award for the best science student and his honours thesis, "Approximation of real-valued functions" was accepted for presentation at the Jaen Conference on Approximation Theory in Spain.
Having completed his undergraduate studies, he did not really have any clear idea of what he wanted to do with his mathematics degree. His mentor, Associate Professor Gideon encouraged him to enrol for a joint postgraduate honours degree in mathematical finance taught by Stellenbosch University, the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, and the University of Cape Town. This meant he had to leave Namibia to continue his studies in Stellenbosch, South Africa under the supervision of Associate Professor Peter Ouwehand. He found the honours program extremely challenging. His thesis was titled "Fast pricing of barrier options". He was one of only two of the 8 students who started the course to graduate. On completion he won the Stellenbosch University merit award. He did not spend all his time studying, it was during his time in Stellenbosch he acquired an appreciation for the wines for which the region is famous.
He then received a sponsorship from the Namibia Financial Institutions Supervisory Authority (NAMFISA) to proceed with a master’s degree by research in financial mathematics at Stellenbosch University (and continue his wine education). Once again he was under the supervision of Associate Professor Ouwehand. His thesis was titled "Heath–Jarrow–Morton models with jumps". On completion he won for a second time the Stellenbosch University merit award. After completing his master’s degree, he was offered a trainee position by NAMFISA which started at the beginning of 2015. This lasted for 6 months before he found himself unemployed.
Unemployed for the second half of 2015 Mesias spent his time applying for PhD positions at universities and research centre's around the world. At first, he found the process completely overwhelming. From his research experience he knew the area that he wanted to study. After a great deal of Googling and consulting his networks, he decided on UTS. It had a Quantitative Finance Research Centre (QFRC) which undertook the type of research in which he was interested in an academically rigorous manner. It recognised new risks and challenged the old assumptions in finance. Another reason for choosing the QFRC was that it was considered one of the best multi-disciplinary research centres in the world. It also allowed him to come to Australia to study, a country that he had never travelled to before but he was keen to explore (and to also further pursue his wine education). He received two scholarships from UTS to cover his tuition fees and living expenses, the UTS President's Scholarship and the International Research Scholarship.
His PhD thesis was under the supervision of Professor Erik Schlögl whom he had met previously while doing his master’s degree at Stellenbosch University. On Professor Schlögl he states:
I have truly benefited from his immense knowledge of quantitative finance. Moreover, he allowed me free reign over my own projects and to have collaborations with other experts in the field. As a result, my PhD research is very multi-disciplinary, covers interest rate theory, stochastic volatility modelling and computational finance-reflecting my desire to continually learn. My research appears in highly ranked peer reviewed journals. I get invited to present my research at highly regarded international forums.
The awards continued to flow. In January 2018 he won the Young Investigator Training Program (YITP) prize. The prize is used to promote scientific research and collaboration among internationally-recognised research institutions and also attempts to encourage the mobility of young scientists. The prize was used to fund his attendance at the XIX Workshop on Quantitative Finance held in late January 2018 at the University of Rome Tre. It also allowed him to spend one month conducting research at the Dipartimento di Matematica at the University of Padua, Italy where he was hosted by Professor Martino Grasselli. The research was presented at the 10th World Congress of the Bachelier Finance Society held in July in Dublin, Ireland of which Mesias said "I consider as the Heaven of Financial Mathematics".
So early 2019 saw Mesias PhD thesis "Stochastic Modelling of New Phenomena in Financial Markets" accepted and a chance to move on to the next stage of his career as a lecturer in mathematics at the University of Wollongong. On his PhD studies at UTS Mesias states:
I had a fantastic time at the UTS Business School as a PhD student. I grasped the values of persistence, independence in academic research. During my first year, I attended courses organized by the Finance Research Network (FIRN) Australia, where PhD students from all over Australia converge and go through advanced materials for solid research foundation in finance. I was also a PhD student representative for the Finance Department in which I had excellent opportunities to interact with intellectuals from diverse cultures. I was able to undertake leadership training and workshops which provided me with skills to value for life.
Since I was in primary school at Okadila my only goal was to build confident personalities in mathematics which has now evolved to aiming to discover something new in mathematics that will be useful for practitioners and have a real social impact. To attain my goal I became single minded and zealous. Most people remarked that I was going crazy when I said mathematics is sexy. I found the following personal traits helpful to remain on track in my academic pursuits, (1) discipline, (2) a sense dissatisfaction, and (3) determination.
On the future for his career he states:
Having secured a researcher and lecturer position at the University of Wollongong, it was something I never imagined could happen and that I will absolutely cherish. I am connected with numerous research projects, fuelling my desire for career advancement and building my research reputation. I am also involved in their practical application to real-world problems to get global exposure. I am now at the beginning of what I hope will be an exciting and rewarding career.
Everybody at UTS wishes Mesias all the best for his future endeavours in what we expect to be a stellar academic career.