Top award for Rhodes scientist

Professor Tebello Nyokong is the first
black South African woman to win the
L’Oreal Unesco Award for Women in
Science.
(Image: Rhodes University)

Tamara O’Reilly

With prestigious awards dedicated to honouring the role of women in science, it won’t be too long before female scientists are noted alongside the likes of Einstein and Isaac Newton.

Rhodes University professor Tebello Nyokong has been announced as the latest recipient of the L’Oreal Unesco Awards for Women in Science in the Africa and Arab states region for her research into the early detection and alternate cures for cancer. She joins four other women from as many continents who will accept the prize of R1-million ($100 000) each in March 2009, which will go towards funding their respective area of research.

The L’Oreal Unesco Awards for Women in Science was established in 1998 with the mission to change the face of science and to turn around the glaring under representation of women in the this field. Since its establishment, 57 laureates from 26 countries have been recognised for their careers and 120 international fellows from 67 countries have been encouraged to pursue their scientific vocations through the organisation’s fellowship programme.

Each year the programme identifies five leading women researchers, and grants 15 fellowships to promising young women scientists around the world at doctoral or post-doctoral level. L’Oréal augments its mission of female empowerment by ensuring that more than half of its 2 000 researchers are women.

The 2009 laureates were selected through nominations by a network of nearly 1 000 members of the international scientific community and are judged by a panel of 17 science experts, two of whom are previous Nobel Prize winners for medicine.

Although Nyokong was born in Lesotho in 1951, she spent much of her life away from her country of birth. Her childhood was far from privileged – her family were too poor to afford shoes and she spent alternate days tending sheep, a task she says made her believe that she could do anything that a boy could.

During high school she chose art subjects but switched to sciences just two years before matric (grade 12) and managed to catch up on the work she missed. Here she cultivated her love for chemistry and pursued this field at tertiary level.

After graduating in 1977, she earned a Canadian International Development Agency Scholarship to undertake postgraduate studies. According to her online profile, four years later she graduated with an MSc in chemistry, which was followed by a PhD from the University of Western Ontario in 1987.

She joined Rhodes University in 1992 as lecturer where she set up a research laboratory and, as a result of her work and research, worked her way through several positions and finally that of professor of Medicinal Chemistry and Nanotechnology.

For a long while she has been working on a cancer treatment called photo-dynamic therapy – an alternative to the taxing chemotherapy. According to the US National Cancer Institute, the therapy combines the administering of a drug called a photosensitiser, which is absorbed into cells. When absorbed by cancer cells and exposed to a specific kind of light, the drug becomes active releasing a form of oxygen that kills the cancerous cells.

Other awards

Nyokong has earned several accolades during the course of her research, among them the SABC2 Shoprite/Checkers Women of the Year Award for Science in 2004 as well as the National Order bestowed by former President Thabo Mbeki in 2005.

Nyokong follows in the footsteps of two other South African women who have previously received the award – Valerie Mizrahi in 2000 for her work in molecular biology and Jennifer Thompson for her work in developing genetically modified plants to alleviate food shortages in desperate countries and improving agricultural productivity.

Do you have queries or comments about this article? Email Tamara O’Reilly at tamarao@mediaclubsouthafrica.com.

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