Tebello Nyokong is one of the most distinguished scientists in Africa and is making huge strides with her laser-based alternative to regular chemotherapy.
As Professor of Medicinal Chemistry and Nanotechnology at Rhodes University in South Africa, she is a recipient of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Distinguished Woman in Chemistry award. In 2009 she won the L’Oreal UNESCO award for women in science, and was the focus of a special motion passed in the South African National Assembly, recognising her role in the transformation of science in the country.
This has been a monumental journey for a woman who at eight years old, working as a shepherd when not at school, was told to pursue arts and humanities rather than science.
Nyokong’s feelings on the matter were set out in a viral letter to her 18-year-old self.
“You believe education will equip you to have a fulfilling career,” it read. “But you have been told endlessly that women do not need a career, they just have to marry well. But you are different. You have an independent mind. You believe you can be a wife and a mother and still be a breadwinner and contribute to society. And you will.”
Nyokong studied her first degree in Lesotho, working up to a PhD at the University of Western Ontario in Canada. She began her relationship with Rhodes University in 1992 as a lecturer.
It’s at Rhodes that she’s developed her groundbreaking “photodynamic therapy,” which involves “injecting photosensitive molecules into the heart of a tumour,” then exposing these molecules to laser radiation. This process causes a toxic chemical reaction with the oxygen in the cancer cells.
Nyokong is also well known for her activism in science, and challenging education leaders to make science as accessible as possible. She laments that many of the science textbooks use examples that have “nothing to do” with people from South Africa. “It is our job as teachers to show students our own local products and examples,” she writes in a blog in Nature.Tags: Africa, cancer research, South Africa, STEM