Award-winning scientist wants to inspire Africa

Tebello Nyokong, a professor of medicinal chemistry and nano-technology at Rhodes University, is a natural-born scientist.

Tebello Nyokong, a professor of medicinal chemistry and nano-technology at Rhodes University, is a natural-born scientist.

She recalls how, when she was a little girl herding sheep at her home in Lesotho, she first developed a love for maths and physical science.

Although she had a good background in the subjects at higher primary school, she abandoned the "monster" subjects at high school after her peers convinced her that they were not for girls.

But two years before she finished high school, Nyokong registered in the maths and science classes. She worked day and night to catch up with her classmates.

Her efforts and determination paid off. Today, this mother of two is listed among the top three publishing scientists in South Africa.

She is director of the DST-Mintek & Nanotechnology Innovation Centre for Sensors, one of only three nanotechnology innovation centres in the country, and has many accolades to her name.

She was winner of the 2004 Shoprite/Checkers Woman of the Year and also received the Order of Mapungbwe: Bronze in 2005.

She is also an elected Fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa and was recently honoured with the Africa-Arab State 2009 L'Oreal-Unesco award for Women in Science. She is only the third South African to receive this award.

The award is in recognition of her ground-breaking research on the use of light for the treatment of cancer.

The self-confessed workaholic says the award is not only a realisation of a dream to represent Africa, but a motivation to young girls to study maths and science at school.

Q: What does your research mean for cancer patients?

A: The treatment offers better post-operative treatment for some cancers than traditional therapies because you don't get the hair loss and nausea associated with chemotherapy and radiotherapy. But a patient cannot go out in the light for several days until the dye has been flushed from the system.

Q: What motivated you to carry out this research?

A: I love working with light and the project on treatment of tumours uses light. It was my way of putting light into good use.

Q: Does it target a specific cancer or can it be used for all cancers?

A: We can attempt to direct the drugs we are developing to certain types of cancers by attaching appropriate molecules.

Q: What attracted you to science?

A: Being a shepherd made me interested in nature. I finally found my home in maths and science just two years before I finished high school.

Q: Would you say it's a calling? And if so, why?

A: It is not a calling. Anybody can do science.

Q: How wide is the participation of black women in this field? Are more women entering it? If not, why is that?

A: Even though the number of women in some sectors of science is the same as men, when it gets to higher levels, women still lag behind due to many reasons. In some disciplines such as biological science, women are beginning to make huge in-roads at top level.

The process is still slow in other disciplines, but I am positive that things will improve. Generally, there are far too few scientists in South Africa.

Q: Your research is still in its early stages. How much work still needs to be done before we can see the effect of it?

A: We are in the pre-clinical stage. There are still many stages before treating humans.

I do not work alone. I work with experts in the different stages of the drug development.

Q: What motivates you?

A: My students, especially graduate students. When they realise that an MSc or PhD is exciting, I feel I can go on. Their hard work and their determination to succeed even when they have no money is inspirational.

Many of my students are from other parts of Africa. They want to learn at all costs.

What also keeps me going is the success of women. I want to succeed for all women, black people and Africans as a whole. There is too much stereotyping and I feel it is my duty to get rid of the stereotype.

Africa as a whole has been portrayed as a continent of war and hunger and I want to show that this is not the case. I encourage young Africans to gain knowledge so that Africa can become a continent with knowledge economy.

Q: What legacy would you like to leave behind?

A: For Africans to move from being consumers of technology or products to being innovators. I hope I will be an example through my research

Q: How do you balance your professional and home life?

A: My children are all grown up now, but I still have a life. When the children were with me I tried to strike a balance. I trained my children to be independent from a very young age so they learnt to take care of themselves. They are doing well for themselves now.

Q: Are there any other community development projects you are involved with?

A: I am involved with a maths and science club which makes these subjects fun for learners. We, myself and other staff members from the university, started maths and science classes for Grades 7 to 10 on Saturdays. We also get Rhodes University students to assist.