An outlier redesigns chemistry

TEBELLO Nyokong recounts a tale of her Lesotho childhood: "I was the oldest of three, and was sent to herd sheep in the fields with the boys. Even though I only went to school every other day, on Sunday at church I had to read — my grandfather was a priest — and show the whole community what I had learnt."

The story encapsulates both the expectations of her family and the drive that propelled her to escape from grinding poverty to become one of South Africa’s top chemists, leading a team of scientists at Rhodes University developing cutting-edge cancer treatments based on dyes and light. She has a string of awards to her name, the most recent being the National Research Foundation’s Lifetime Achiever Award, which she received in August. She was the first South African scientist to win the L’Oréal-Unesco Awards for Women in Science, and has been awarded a bronze Order of Mapungubwe.

Nyokong’s work as the research chair of medicinal chemistry and nanotechnology centres on designing cancer drugs made from a class of intensely coloured compounds called phthalocyanines, which are related to the dyes that give jeans their characteristic blue colour. Scientists can alter the properties of phthalocyanines by modifying their chemical structure, by changing the metal at their centre or adding enzymes, says Nyokong. "As chemists, we are designers."

These designer drugs are injected into the blood and are selectively absorbed by the cells in cancer tumours, where they remain inactive until red laser light is shone upon them. Red light is used because it penetrates tissue more deeply than other wavelengths, to about 3cm, which limits the application of this treatment to tumours close to the skin or to the surface of internal organs.

Nyokong’s team has also developed thin films containing phthalocyanines that can block the green laser light that pranksters shine at aircraft to try to blind pilots, and devised others that can detect bacteria in contaminated water.

With hindsight, Nyokong believes she was always drawn to science, as she spent long hours watching the birds and plants in the fields while tending sheep. Even so, she doubted her ability to succeed in the subjects her peers labelled too difficult, and opted for the arts stream in junior high school. "Three years in, I realised it was not for me, because when asked to write an essay in 10 pages, I could do it in a paragraph."

She switched to sciences and studied late into the night to catch up the years she had missed. But it was not a straightforward path to university. In a letter to her 18-year-old self, published by a girls science club, she wrote: "What about your family? Will they understand why you need to go to university? Let me tell you, they will not. They would like you to work and support your brother and sister so they can complete their schooling. You know this is fair since you were supported. The family believes you have enough education…. Now you are going too far, they are now worried about when you will get married and have children."

Family pressures initially won, and Nyokong spent a year working in a roads-planning department after she finished school, to help raise the money for her siblings’ school fees. She hated the job and left to pursue her ambition of becoming a scientist at the University of Lesotho, where a Dr Gray, a young Canadian peace corps volunteer, ignited her passion for chemistry.

"Teachers don’t realise the beautiful role they play. Until then, I had no role models. I just knew about engineers and doctors. Then I fell in love with chemistry."

She went on to do a masters and a PhD at the University of Western Ontario, funded by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). "You must remember SA was closed to us at that time for postgraduate study." CIDA was offering scholarships to support the growth of an academic corps in Lesotho. By this stage, she was married, with two young children. "I left them in Lesotho for about a year with my mother. It was really difficult. At times I felt like banging my head against the wall. I wouldn’t encourage anyone to do it. But I just wanted to get ahead and change my circumstances."

After she finished her doctorate, Nyokong won a Fulbright scholarship to study at the University of Notre Dame in the US, and joined Rhodes University in 1992. "When I first arrived at Rhodes it was very challenging. I felt academic loneliness, where there was no-one to talk to, no-one to share ideas with. I have no idea whether it was because I was female, or because I was black. But the situation is, I think, improving."

Her father, David Malikhetla, played a critical role in shaping her career path. "He believed all his children should be more educated than him. He and my mother only reached standard 6. He never made me feel that I was a girl who should do girly things, and I think that helps a lot in developing you as a scientist. He encouraged me to be whatever I wanted, and to be the best."

Her father ran his own construction business, and taught Nyokong to lay bricks, plaster and fix a roof. He also insisted that no daughter of his should get married before she had completed her education, dismissing the boys who courted his oldest daughter while she was still at school.

Education was to be the family’s salvation. He had relocated his family to Maseru after the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, believing the education system in his wife’s country offered better opportunities for his children. "When you grow up with no shoes, and barely anything to eat, you want to get out. Education was the only way. Otherwise I’d still be stuck there, barefoot with 13 children."

Nyokong sees that hunger in the township children she coaches in science clubs, and in some of the students that fill her lecture halls. "Each of them has a story. I have a student whose mother finished school in standard 3, and she is absolutely determined to get a doctorate. She reminds me of myself."

Such ambition is often not supported, she says. "I was talking to a teacher recently, who told me there will be one or two pupils who get 90%, while the rest get two or three. She said the home situation is the same, it’s just that the child (who performs well) is determined to escape. And yet the others put the child down. People don’t want others to succeed, they want you to be part of the crowd that fails. I don’t understand that."

Nyokong is an advocate of the argument that success is born of sweat rather than talent. "I am a big reader and my favourite book is Malcolm Gladwell’s The Outlier. It tells you about the success of people such as Bill Gates and the hours they put in. People don’t realise that nothing comes easily. You may have talent, but if you don’t work at it you are not going to get anywhere."

By Tamar Kahn

Picture: Sophie Smith

Source: Business Day newspaper 

Source:  Business Day newspaper

Please help us to raise funds so that we can give all our students a chance to access online teaching and learning. Covid-19 has disrupted our students' education.  Don't let the digital divide put their future at risk. Visit to donate