No ordinary scientist

Tebello Nyokong has come a long way — from herding sheep in Lesotho as a young girl to becoming a professor of medicinal chemistry and nanotechnology at Rhodes University and receiving a prestigious Order of Mapungubwe for her contribution to science in South Africa. Yet she almost didn’t choose science as a career.

Nyokong was raised in Lesotho by her maternal grandparents while her parents lived in Sharpeville. She grew up as a shepherd and went to school on alternate days until her parents moved to Lesotho after the Sharpeville massacre. Even after that she grew up doing jobs which boys would traditionally do.

When it was time for high school she swayed before peer pressure and chose to study arts, even though she had a good background in mathematics and science. She spent three years of high school studying arts subjects.

With only two years of high school left, she decided to move to the science stream.

“I had wonderful teachers who made science come alive,” she remembers, “and I have never looked back!”

While studying towards a BSc at the University of Lesotho she chose chemistry as a career even though she did not even know whether there were any jobs available for chemists. There were no role models in chemistry at the time and there was no career guidance.

But one of her lecturers, Dr Gray, instilled a love of the subject in his brilliant young student. “He made me see that chemists were able to produce medicine which could assist medical doctors to treat their patients,” she explains.

After obtaining a BSc from the University of Lesotho in 1977, she moved to Canada for an MSc at McMaster University in Ontario and a PhD at the University of Western Ontario. She was subsequently awarded a Fullbright fellowship to spend a post-doctoral year at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

After a stint as lecturer at the University of Lesotho following her PhD studies, she moved to Rhodes University in 1992. She is currently a professor of medicinal chemistry and nano-technology at Rhodes University. She is also a director of the DST/Mintek Nanotechnology Innovation Centre — Sensors.

Nyokong’s research focus is on a cancer diagnosis and treatment methodology known as photodynamic therapy (PDT), which uses a red laser light and the same dye used in blue denims, harmless by itself and activated by exposure to light. PDT offers an alternative to chemotherapy.

She is collaborating with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in a bid to take cancer treatment research to preclinical tests. The team will use synthetic, three-dimensional tissue models, based on human cell samples for preclinical testing.

Another of her research projects is on the design of sensors for the early detection of human diseases through the DST/Mintek Nanotechnology Innovation Centre. The development of sensors for the detection of food toxins and pesticides in water will help to alleviate health problems faced by rural people by giving early advice on the prevention of disease. An example is oesophageal cancer which affects mainly rural males in South Africa and has been linked to toxins in maize products.

Nyokong has received numerous awards for her research, including the Order of Mapungubwe — bronze; Shoprite/Checkers woman of the year 2004 — Science and technology division; and Vice-chancellor’s distinguished research award (Rhodes University). She was also recently appointed as an adjunct professor at the University of Tromsø in Norway.

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