Trailblazing scientist living her dream
Lesotho-born Professor Tebello Nyokong is creating her own piece of science history
THE story of Lesotho-born academic, Professor Tebello Nyokong, is testimony to how anything is possible through determination.
Born on 20 October 1951 in Likotsi, Maseru, Prof Nyokong is Rhodes University’s (RU) Distinguished Professor of Medicinal Chemistry and Nanotechnology. Her revolutionary ‘photo-dynamic therapy’ is considered an alternative to traditional chemotherapy in detecting and treating cervical, breast and prostate cancer.
According to Professor Nyokong, ‘photo-dynamic therapy’ revolves around dye which is used to colour blue denim outfits.
“It is inert and harmless by itself and can be activated by exposure to red laser beam. The system does not have severe side-effects that destroy hair or healthy cells or causes nausea,” she said.
A product of Likotsi Primary and Lesotho High schools, Prof Nyokong completed her Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry and Biology and Certificate in Education at the National University of Lesotho (NUL) in 1977.
She proceeded to pursue a Masters in Chemistry at the McMaster University in Canada in 1981 and attained her PhD in Chemistry from the University of Western Ontario also in Canada, in 1987.
Still thirsty for knowledge, Prof Nyokong later pursued her post-doctoral studies through a Fulbright Fellowship at the University of Notre Dame in the United States from 1990-1991.
On returning home, Prof Nyokong taught briefly at the University of Lesotho before joining Rhodes University in 1992 as a lecturer. The Foundation for Research Development (now the National Research Foundation) soon provided her with a rating which allowed her to set up a research laboratory at the university. This marked the beginning of a remarkable rise to positions of senior lecturer, associate professor and fully-fledged professor.
From 2001 to-date, Prof Nyokong has been awarded research and equipment grants to the value of over R100 million for her photo-dynamic therapy research.
In November 2014, United Nations (UN) Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon appointed the science guru to a high-level Panel of the UN’s Technology Bank and Science, Technology and Innovation Supporting Mechanism dedicated to least-developed countries.
Speaking to the Sunday Express from Rhodes University last week, Prof Nyokong attributed her success to her daring spirit and never-say-die attitude.
“I think about it all the time; with two years left to finish my high school, I go and start new subjects. I must have been a rebel. Someone should have stopped me but no one did.”
However, the professor has no regrets about her decision to take up science subjects at the 11th hour and leave arts which she had pursued all along.
“I did the right thing, looking back,” said the award-winning professor, whose honours include (South Africa’s) Order of Mapungubwe: Bronze (2005) while Vodacom Lesotho inducted her into the Lesotho Hall of Fame in 2010.
“Hard work does not kill. Parents should encourage their children to be hard-workers. Never give-up when faced with obstacles. You must always pursue what you believe in. You don’t have to be discouraged if you believe what you are doing is right for you.”
Professor Nyokong’s journey begins in her early childhood, as a shepherd girl in Likotsi, where she discovered her immense love for ‘Mother Nature’. Michael Gladwell’s book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants, was to later shape her destiny.
“The book made me think about my life. It was how David used a sling to fight in a different way, which made me think differently, in my own way. I knew I couldn’t follow the usual way of doing things but had to do things differently but effectively.”
She continues: “I was the first born in a family of three and my father’s right-hand man and in charge of everything.
“My father told me I could do anything, so from a young age, I never saw myself as a ‘woman’ while pursuing my heart’s desires. Today my students are my sheep. I strongly believe in teaching young people to believe in themselves and become great leaders by working hard.
“Girls and Africans are not expected to succeed, but I have had to be a role-model for others to see that girls and Africans can succeed.”
Again, she distinguished herself in 2012 as she was named the South African Chemical Institute (SACI) Gold Medal Award Winner and also included in the Spain-based National Centre for Research on Human Evolution (CENIEH) to be one of the institution’s ‘13 NAMES TO CHANGE THE WORLD’.
“My job is to train high-level manpower for the continent and I am doing just that,” the professor said.
Prof Nyokong’s passion for her science calling continues to be recognized as she was presented with a ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ in 2013 by the National Research Foundation Rating (NRFR), and elected a fellow of the African Academy of Sciences (AAS) .
“As Africans, we must be innovators and inventors. We are not there to beg or be dumped with aid. Africa needs to be seen as a continent where scientific innovation takes place.”
Looking back, Prof Nyokong said she takes pride in her grandfather who already knew the ‘catch them young’ principle.
“My grandfather was a Pastor and he made me read the bible in church every Sunday. So from a young age I learnt to overcome stage-fright.”
Prof Nyokong has had to be a risk-taker who is patient but persistent in the process of being a pioneer.
She says of her cancer research: “It takes time for a product to be on the market. It takes billions of rands and over 20 years to get any medical product in the public domain since there are many rules and regulations to follow and there are no shortcuts in life.
“Through research, I have discovered many aspects of life. One is always trying to uncover something new, and in the process, you learn from your mistakes.
“Criticism is the biggest lesson for me. I take the criticism and use it to succeed.”
For Prof Nyokong, the sky is the limit but she remains modest after all the glory and honour.
“One must have good time-management, be disciplined and I run my life with military precision,” said the mother-of-two.
And the words from Michael Gladwell’s ‘David and Goliath’ indeed summaries the Likotsi born scientist’s rise from rags to riches: “But so much of what is beautiful and valuable in the world comes from the shepherd who has more strength and purpose than we ever imagine.”
Yet for Professor Nyokong, the one-time shepherd girl on the verge of re-writing history, all she ever wished for was to own a “pair of shoes” in her life.