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From herding sheep to top scientist, inspirer

Date Released: Tue, 4 August 2015 12:45 +0200

SCIENCE is not for girls. This is a myth held by many. It was even believed by a girl who would however grow up to be a scientist whose work in cancer treatment – developing an alternative to chemotherapy – would earn her international renown.
“It was a general belief that the sciences were hard and not for girls. I began to believe them [other pupils]. So I spent three years of my high school learning arts subjects,” says Professor Tebello Nyokong.
Nyokong, who was born and grew up in Maseru, Lesotho, herding sheep, had entered high school with a good background in maths and science from primary school, but chose the art stream due to peer pressure.
“We did not have much guidance as we got into high school. So we listened to what other students had to say,” says Nyokong, who has recently been appointed to UN Secretary-General Ban Kimoon’s high-level panel on technology bank for least developed countries.
But she soon realised that the arts were not for her. “I really did not enjoy my subjects. I was bored and because of that I was naughty in class.”
Turning point
It was a female teacher who discovered that the girl who would one day in 2010 be inducted into Lesotho’s Hall of Fame was misplaced in the arts.
“One of the science teachers discovered me. It was a female teacher and I owe a lot to her. She took a risk on me with only two years of my high school left and advised me to transfer to the science stream.”
Not one to shy away from hard work, the L’Oreal-Unesco Award for Women in Science laureate, who had to attend school on alternate days due to her shepherding duties, did what it took to catch up on the three years of high school science she had missed.
“I worked very hard to catch up with the others who had been on the course for three years. I had to spend days and nights studying physics, biology and chemistry and had to practise hard for mathematics.
“I even enrolled in an additional maths course (advanced mathematics) which was optional. But I enjoyed every part of it,” Nyokong says. “I passed with good enough marks for admission into university, though I did not attend university immediately since I had to work to help my family for a year, as my father was very ill.”
A fatherly example
Nyokong’s father played a very important role in her life, being a role model and affirming her, but he sadly died before she obtained her first degree. “Because of the [apartheid] system in South Africa, my father was convinced that there could only be changed through education. “He used to say that education was the only way to make people equal and defeat the unjust system.
“So getting educated was a main priority. My father did not know about a PhD or MSc, all he wanted was for us to get a high school certificate.” Living her passion 
And this gospel of education is what the Rhodes University professor preaches today. “The development of South Africa will depend on its highly skilled labour,” she says, urging young South Africans to keep studying to the highest level of PhD.
“I have had a number of people writing to me regretting the fact that they were in a hurry to make money. Now they wish they had studied further. It is hard work to study, but hard work is fun.” Nyokong also lauds the teachers who not only educate, but inspire young people to dream beyond their disadvantaged backgrounds. Nyokong is now herself a teacher, lecturing in chemistry from first year upwards at Rhodes University.
“I want to instil my passion for learning in students. I believe in exciting students right from first year about chemistry and I believe in instilling the values of hard work and passion in whatever they do.” Nyokong says.
“I place great emphasis on encouraging my students to see chemistry and science in everything around them, and to continuously work at making science accessible to the layman … “I also believe in encouraging my students to think independently, and to become employers rather than employees.”
Cancer research
The scientific research which has set Nyokong apart is her work called photodynamic therapy (PDT) of cancer. PTD is meant to be an alternative to chemotherapy. “The new therapy is based on using the blue dye used to colour blue denim clothing, which is inert and harmless by itself, but can be activated by exposure to a red laser beam. “In this treatment, the drugs are administered to a patient from three to 96 hours prior to administration of laser light. Over time, the compounds build up in the cancerous tissues.
“Clinicians then shine a strong, red laser light on the diseased areas, which causes a chemical reaction to occur between the drugs and oxygen molecules in the cancer tissues.
“Toxic oxygen is generated, which then destroys the tumor cells,” Nyokong explains. “As chemists, we are designers. My research deals with the development of drugs from dyes. We call them dyes because their molecules are similar to those of dyes you use to colour jeans.”
Inspiring others
PhD student Muthumuni Managa says Nyokong, her supervisor, is “very strong, encouraging and hard- working.”
“She wants the best for students,” says Managa who picked Nyokong to supervise her PhD research based on her interest in photodynamic therapy.
MSc student Siphesihle Nxele, who has been short-listed for a department of science and technology South African Women in Science Award, describes her supervisor as a “real person”.
“People think she must be [intimidating], but she is easily approachable, very understanding and makes an effort to understand each student individually.”
Article by: Thando Ndabezitha
Article source: Sowetan