A passion for science, a thirst for knowledge

Professor Tebello Nyokong, who recently won the National Research Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award, has big plans for science in Africa, writes Oliver Roberts.

We’re actually having brain gain and no one wants to talk about it because it’s not attractive. People are coming here from overseas to work.

Her mother was a preacher’s daughter, but still the teenaged Tebello Nyokong dreaded going to church. Every Sunday she sat in the pews, waiting nervously for the moment when her father grunted or sighed at something the pastor had just said.

When that happened, Nyokong tensed and prepared for what was coming next: her father would stand up in front of the congregation and, clearly unabashed, challenge whatever had just been preached. He did this not because he did not believe in God, but because he always felt the need to question.

Today Tebello Nyokong is distinguished professor of chemistry at Rhodes University where, among other things, she continues to garner international acclaim for her work using photodynamic therapy in cancer diagnosis and as an alternative to chemotherapy.

She has won so many awards (Fulbright, Woman of the Year, etc) that the walls of her office have reached capacity. Her most recent accolade, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Research Foundation, is a beautiful, framed object that has been leant against a bookshelf, awaiting the unlikely discovery of more wall space.

A lot of this glory has to do with her father standing up in church. “He questioned everything, everything,” Nyokong says. “So I had no choice but to do the same.” She laughs when she says this — a lovely, deep, mischievous laugh that lasts maybe two seconds and causes her eyes to squeeze together. If you spend any reasonable amount of time talking to the esteemed professor, it is a sound and a gesture you become accustomed to.

Nyokong grew up in Lesotho (she was inducted into that country’s Hall of Fame in 2010), and in between her schooling she helped her father with his construction business (“manly things,” she says) and spent many hours in quiet, misty fields as a shepherdess. These are the things that Nyokong believes ignited her scientific lust.

“Can you say that one is born a scientist? Maybe not,” she says. “I think families can make scientists because when I worked with my father, I had to use numbers and things like that. As a shepherdess, I learnt to live in the field, I learnt to understand plants and animals, what is edible what is not, and that is science. Just having that mind that asks ‘Why?’ and exploring it is science.”

In the mid-’70s Nyokong left South Africa to get her PhD in chemistry at the University of Western Ontario, Canada. Back then she had no choice but to leave the continent to further herself, but she has since become vehement about instilling a sense of patriotic pride and self-confidence in her students and the African scientific community.

“I am driven by being an African, completely. Completely,” she says. “And you can blame Canada for that. Because when I was in Canada in those days, everything negative you can think of came from Africa, and I’d sit there [listening to people criticising Africa] and there was only so much I could take, so I began to love Africa. I don’t know, it’s the underdog thing, I think. I am so passionate about the continent. I’m passionate to see us succeed.”

So although Nyokong has enormous respect for the research that comes from places like Germany, Switzerland and Japan, she is determined to show off South Africa’s excellence in the most blatant ways. Thanks to her reputation and a knack for “recognising an opportunity when I see one,” Nyokong received about R40million from the government to buy highly sophisticated nanotechnology equipment for the Rhodes research department, which people come from all over the world to use.

“We have to be critical of the government but also thankful,” she says. “It’s very important to say that because we spend more time complaining about the government than pointing out the good it’s doing. Also, the brain drain we talk about? We’re actually having brain gain and no one wants to talk about it because it’s not attractive. People are coming here from overseas to work. There are Europeans coming to use facilities in Africa.” She pronounces the word “Afrika” and laughs that delighted laugh again.

To emphasise that the grass over there is sometimes a lighter shade of green than the one found here, Nyokong sends some of her students overseas for a month or two so they can see the comparably bright reality of South Africa for themselves. Another thing she always tries to do with her students is have fun, and sometimes she likes to break the rules as well, just like her pastor-challenging father.

When she won her Lifetime Achievement Award at a function in Port Elizabeth recently, she got her students to come on stage with her, which is not really allowed. When I ask if that act was well received or not by those in attendance, she laughs and says, “What choice did they have?”

“We don’t celebrate our young people enough,” she says of her reason for bringing her students on stage with her.

Then, referring to the nurturing and development of young scientists on the continent, she says: “Honestly, it starts early. Instead of just giving girls dolls to play with, give them technical things. You know, sometimes when a father is fixing the car, the boy can go and look and help, but girls have to have a certain role and it might actually be dangerous to do that.

“We need to be able to touch things and explore, and to try to understand why things operate the way they operate. That is science. It’s about allowing children from a young age to ask ‘Why?’ But in African culture that’s not an easy thing. Children must sit in the corner and keep quiet.”

The professor loves the idea of maintaining a network of knowledge between universities all over Africa. A lot of lecturers on the continent come to Rhodes University to be trained by Nyokong, and her intention is always to send them home inspired by their potential.

Locally she is part of the Technology Innovation Agency, which, although it is moving slowly, is attempting to establish and support small industries that create scientific products using the country’s own research and development. She describes this as her “obsession”.

“You must love what you do and love the students,” she says, “and I have a passion. That is what is keeping me going. If I accept a student, they must succeed, so I work hard to make sure that they are employable when I’m done or they can employ themselves, whichever the case may be.

“So I work them hard. Some of them run, which is fine, but I work them hard because I feel that we need leaders in this country that have integrity and that are hardworking.”

Picture: GARY HORLORDRIVEN BY BEING AN AFRICAN: Chemistry Professor Tebello Nyokong in her laboratory at Rhodes University

By: Oliver Roberts

Article Source: Sunday Times