In the first of our five features celebrating Ada Lovelace Day and prominent women in science and technology across the world, we speak to Professor Tebello Nyokong, an internationally renowned Chemist, on African science, education and innovation.
Ada Lovelace Day, which this year takes place on October 14, is an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).
Prof Tebello Nyokong holds a DST/NRF professorship in Medicinal chemistry and Nanotechnology at Rhodes University in South Africa. She is also Director of the DST/Mintek Nanotechnology Innovation Centre (NIC)-Sensors at Rhodes University where she joined in 1992 after lecturing at the University of Lesotho for five years. She has been undertaking research on applications of phthalocyanines in healthcare: as photodynamic therapy (PDT) of cancer agents in combination with nanosized metal nanoparticles and quantum dots. In September 2009, a special motion was passed in the South African National Assembly acknowledging Professor Nyokong’s role in the transformation of science in South Africa. Nyokong has also been award the title of Distinguished Professor at Rhodes University and recognized by the Royal Society in Chemistry/Pan African Chemistry Network as a Distinguished Woman in Chemistry.
“I keep telling people I’m no longer a role model, I’m too old, too straight and not hip enough,” asserts a hysterical Professor Tebello Nyokong in her own typically modest and charismatic demeanour. Of course, her defiance is far removed from the truth. The quick-talking, affable and extremely accommodating distinguished professor is today not only one of the most internationally respected scientists in the world, lauded for her pioneering research into photodynamic therapy for cancer treatment, but is a constant source of inspiration for students across Africa.
Brought up in politically unstable times in her home country of South Africa, she was sent to live with her grandparents in the mountainous terrain of Lesotho. As an eight-year-old, she would work as a shepherd on alternate days from school, learning the traits of a hard day’s shift. It was here where she found “much solace in nature’s beauty” and learned to appreciate the great science around her.
Initially dissuaded by her peers to study sciences at school, Nyokong was desperate for a challenge. After three years studying arts and humanities, she realised they had guided her in the wrong direction. “There were no role models to look up to back then. You just learned to follow your peers,” says Nyokong. “They told me science was too hard and way beyond me, but I was adamant I wanted to do it and with two years left switched courses.”
Nyokong pins much of her determination and steely resistance down to her upbringing and this is evident in her unerring enthusiasm for teaching as the director of the Nanotechnology Innovation Centre at Rhodes University in South Africa. “I was brought up to work hard, whether it was as a young shepherd or working long hours mixing cement and concrete for my father’s company. I was just used to touching things,” brims Nyokong. “Now when I talk to schools or parents, the first thing I say, is let your children touch and explore, it’s the first path to science.”
As an influential voice in South African education, she is not afraid to express her fearless views on the teaching of science and believes much needs to be changed. “In South Africa we have this system that constantly strives for 100% pass rates at schools. Many of the teachers themselves find science hard, as very few are trained in teaching the discipline, and therefore under great pressure, they discourage students from courses. It is a deeply flawed system,” notes Nyokong despondently.
This apathy towards the more challenging scientific subjects at South African high schools can be changed, Nyokong believes, through raising awareness and visible role models. “Science is not just part of our culture, it is part of our everyday life, and role models are crucial in promoting this. I didn’t have any, other than my teachers. Nobody knew what a chemist was back then. Students need people to look up to, as well as a mentality of if someone from that background can do it, why can’t I?” exclaims Nyokong, who often refers to her humble background as proof of this.
Nyokong herself had a varied education graduating in chemistry and biology from the National University of Lesotho in 1977, in which she spent her spare time doing research on the role of chemistry in everyday African life. Even then, she was unsure what a qualification in chemistry would lead to. Undeterred, she pursued an MSc in chemistry four years later, and after further study received a PhD from the University of Western Ontario in 1987.
After a brief spell in the US, Nyokong returned to teach with a short stint at the University of Lesotho before joining Rhodes University in 1992 as a lecturer. It is at Rhodes where much of her internationally renowned research has been carried out in the laboratory she set up at the institution. Nyokong’s research focuses on a cancer diagnosis and treatment methodology, known as photodynamic therapy, an alternative to chemotherapy. It looks at the development of molecules similar to the ones used to dye blue jeans, which can be used as chemical sensors to detect disease-related molecules and organisms.
Research excellence has led to many accolades for Nyokong, including the title of Distinguished Professor at Rhodes, a coveted and rare – A rating from the National Research Foundation (NRF) and becoming one of the first South African scientists to win the L’Oréal-UNESCO award for women in science in 2009. However, it is much of her outstanding work in training chemists, particularly women, that goes under the radar. It is her certain methods of teaching that are oft admired by high school students right through to lecturers.
“Over the years I have become very passionate in making people aware of science in the marketplace. I used to run a programme for high school learners where I would take them to the supermarket and show them how the products they buy everyday are influenced or impacted on by science,” enthuses Nyokong. “It makes it more real and shows the science in their everyday lives. Because most of the books we get are from overseas, the scientific examples often have nothing to do with us. They are of other people in other countries, so it is our job as teachers to show students our own local products and examples.”
Cutting edge of science
Nyokong is keen for South Africa to stay at the cutting edge of scientific development and believes through international collaborations and by linking up with industry, the country can do so. “South Africa has made the right policies and in terms of output is beginning to show on the world map,” she says buoyantly. “Where the limitations are noticeable and the government is very aware of, is taking those outputs, not all but some, and turning them into products through innovation. That is where we really struggle.”
“When I collaborate internationally, I see a culture where scientists will pitch an innovative idea to the industry and a company can choose to take or fund it if they are interested. However in South Africa, we just don’t have that, which puts a lot of strain on the market,” she adds. “My frustration comes on the medical side. I’m not into development, I’m into research and training young people to develop, and if industries, particularly pharmaceutical industries and others were to really invest in research, we would see a massive boost in productivity.”
Africa’s Innovation Chasm
She believes there is a worrying “innovation chasm” developing in wider Africa, with an insufficient amount of research directly influencing the economy. “Many students in Africa have excellent theoretical scientific knowledge, but lack the tools for research. It is a travesty in a continent where we need that critical mass of young people with great ideas coming through academia. It is worrying because many of the productive researchers at African universities are aging and there is a major gap in between developing.”
One example Nyokong cites is the 2010 World Cup in South Africa where there was an urgent demand for engineers to build stadia. “We immediately needed engineers and could have trained many in South Africa and neighbouring African countries if we had young people with maths and science from high school. Sadly, the harsh truth was we didn’t have enough and work was outsourced,” says Nyokong.
Building for the future
Nyokong’s role in equipping young African scientists and lecturers, is downplayed by the ever modest professor, but is vitally important for the future of African science. Her research laboratory attracts people from across the world and Nyokong personally invites lecturers in other African countries to train for PhDs. “The aim is to take African lecturers in and equip them with the right training before sending them back to their respective classrooms,” passionately explains Nyokong. The biggest frustration here, she expresses, is how many return to classrooms that lack the appropriate facilities for teaching. “Many go back with a renewed confidence and vigour, but frustratingly return to facilities that are not fit to teach or carry out research.”
Nyokong’s outlook is very grounded, steeped in years of experience, but optimistic nonetheless. Her inspired story of where she is today noticeably rubs off on anyone who spends a short time in her company.
In a letter to her 18 year-old self, which has now been translated across many parts of the world, she says: “You believe education will equip you to have a fulfilling career. 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 bread winner and contribute to society. And you will.”
It is with people like Nyokong that African science will continue to develop, make a difference to the world, and inspire many like-minded young people to follow in her footsteps.