Nyokong Wins Prestigious L' Oreal Award

Rhodes University’s Professor Tebello Nyokong, has won the Africa-Arab State 2009 L’Oréal-Unesco Award for Women in Science for her pioneering research into photodynamic therapy which looks at harnessing light for cancer therapy and environmental clean-up. Nyokong is the third South African Scientist to receive this award, and reaffirms Rhodes’s place as one of the top research institutions in the country. University of Cape Town’s Professor Jennifer Thompson was previously recognised for her work on genetic engineering while Wits University’s Professor Valerie Mizrahi was recognised for her tuberculosis research.

Professor of Medicinal Chemistry and Nanotechnology, Nyokong holds a DST/NRF South African Research Chair and is the Director of the DST-Mintek & Nanotechnology Innovation Centre for Sensors. This is one of three Nanotechnology Innovation Centres in South Africa. Nyokong is also recognised as one of the top three publishing scientists in South Africa. The prestigious L’Oréal-Unesco Award punctuates a distinguished scientific career that has earned Nyokong the 2004 Shoprite/Checkers Woman of the Year award and the Order of Mapungbwe: Bronze in 2005 by former president Thabo Mbeki, among many other accolades. She is also an elected Fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa (FRSSA)

Photodynamic therapy (PDT) uses specially developed dyes to direct deadly light onto cancer cells, and is being researched all over the world as an alternative to chemotherapy. The dye is injected into the bloodstream or applied directly to the skin. PDT is combined with quantum dots (QD), which are nanoparticles that absorb and then re-emit light, thus enabling scientists to target the cancer cells with red light and allowing for an efficient cancer treatment involving the photosensitization and imaging of these QD to kill the cancer cells.

These dyes have been developed primarily overseas and Nyokong says that more research is needed to establish which dyes are most efficient in the harsh African sunlight. “Any amount of the drug on healthy tissue (such as the skin) is affected by even the smallest amount of sunlight, even indoors,” said Nyokong.

Another aspect of Nyokong’s research is pollution control. One of the methods for the purification of water is photochemical destruction of pollutants (such as chlorinate phenols and other pesticides) using ultraviolet light. However, photodegradation products for some of the pollutants are more toxic than the parent compounds. Photosensitized oxidation has been suggested as a possible solution to this problem. Prof Nyokong is investigating the use of phthalocyanines as photosensitizers, including biomimetic and electrochemical degradation of the pollutants, in the transformation of chlorinated phenols and other pollutants into less harmful products.

Nominated by a network of 1000 members of the international scientific community and selected by a jury of 17 eminent world scientists headed by Professor Ahmed Zewail, the Nobel laureate for Chemistry in 1999, Nyokong is a true incarnation of the Rhodes motto – “Where leaders learn”. Her work has been described as a perfect fit with the award’s mission to “change the face of science and support the advancement of women in the scientific field.”

“It is a great honour to be a laureate representing African and Arab states, areas that are not known for their scientific achievement,” said Nyokong who hopes that the award will enable her to “play an ambassadorial role”, promoting science in Africa and the Arab states.

Established in 1998 as the first international awards dedicated to women scientists, the awards alternate each year between physical and life sciences and carry a $100 000 prize for each laureate. Noyokong, who says her research on new dyes for photodynamic therapy specifically suited to the African environment is still at an early stage, hopes to invest some of her prize into seeing these products successfully through the develpmental, trial and safety testing stages so that they become available on the market in the years to come.


The Laureates for the L’ORÉAL-UNESCO Awards For Women in Science 2009:

Africa & the Arab States: Pr. Tebello Nyokong, Professor in the Department of Chemistry at Rhodes University in South Africa, for her work on harnessing light for cancer therapy and for environmental clean-up.

Asia-Pacific: Pr. Akiko Kobayashi, Professor and Chair of the Department of Chemistry, College of Humanities and Sciences at Nihon University in Japan, for her contribution to the development of molecular conductors and the design and synthesis of a single-component molecular metal.

North America: Pr. Eugenia Kumacheva, Professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Toronto in Canada, for the design and development of new materials with many applications including targeted drug delivery for cancer treatments and materials for high density optical data storage.

Europe: Pr. Athene M. Donald, Professor of Experimental Physics at the Cavendish Laboratory in the Department of Physics at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, for her work in unravelling the mysteries of the physics of messy materials, ranging from cement to starch.

Latin America: Pr. Beatriz Barbuy, Professor at the Institute of Astronomy, Geophysics and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, for her work on the life of stars from the birth of the universe to the present time.

A Pioneering Programme: More Than 10 Years of Supporting Women in Science

Created in 1998, the L’ORÉAL-UNESCO Awards For Women in Science were established as the first international awards dedicated to women scientists around the world. More than 10 years and 57 Laureates later, the programme is a benchmark of international scientific excellence, and an invaluable source of motivation, support, and inspiration for women in the scientific field. The Awards alternate each year between Life Sciences and Physical Sciences, recognising work that addresses major challenges in modern science. The Laureates serve as role models for future generations, encouraging young women around the world to follow in their footsteps.

In addition to its international Laureates, the L’ORÉAL-UNESCO For Women in Science programme has to date granted 120 International Fellowships and 340 National Fellowships to female doctoral and postdoctoral students, fostering a global community of scientific talent that continues to grow each year.

The L’Oréal Corporate Foundation

The L’Oréal Corporate Foundation is committed to three areas of action: encouraging education, fostering scientific research, and creating bonds of solidarity for those in fragile circumstances. The L’Oréal Foundation, which presently regroups a number of major existing corporate philanthropy initiatives including the L’Oréal-UNESCO Awards For Women in Science will strengthen these actions and ensure their continuity, as well as develop new programmes in the coming years.


Since its creation in 1945, UNESCO has pursued the mission of promoting science – the “S” in its acronym – for peace. Today, UNESCO notably aims to reinforce international cooperation in the basic sciences among its 193 Member States and promotes ethical norms in science. The Organisation has also been dedicated to eliminating all forms of discrimination and promoting equality between men and women. As well as developing educational programmes in science particularly designed for girls, UNESCO has established a network of academic chairs creating links between women in science around the world.

Story By: Kerry Peter, Rhodes University Communications and Development Division


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