Tebello Nyokong (b. October 20,1951) is a South African researcher of a ground-breaking cancer diagnosis and treatment,
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,
Tebello Nyokong was born in Lesotho on 20 October 1951, but spent most of her first eight years outside her country of birth. In primary school she spent alternate days tending sheep. Far from discouraging her, this increased her self-confidence because she concluded that she could do anything a boy could do.
In high school, she chose arts subjects, but just two years before her matric year she changed to the sciences. She managed to overhaul the backlog of work, developing an enduring love for chemistry as she worked. She received her Cambridge Overseas School Certificate in 1972.
In 1977 she graduated from the National University of Lesotho, having spent her spare time doing research on the role of chemistry in everyday African life, and obtained a Canadian International Development Agency Scholarship to undertake post-graduate studies. Four years later she graduated with an MSc in chemistry, and after further study received a PhD from the University of Western Ontario in 1987. She then applied for and was given a Fulbright fellowship for post-doctoral study at the University of Notre Dame in the United States .
On her return from abroad, Nyokong taught briefly at the University of Lesotho before joining Rhodes University in 1992 as a lecturer. Impressed by the quality of her work, 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. It was the start of a rapid climb to the positions of senior lecturer, associate professor and fully-fledged professor.
Nyokong is currently engaged in ground-breaking research on a new cancer diagnosis and treatment methodology called “photo-dynamic therapy” which is intended as an alternative to chemotherapy.
The new therapy is based on using the dye which is used to colour blue denim clothing, and which is inert and harmless by itself but can be activated by exposure to a red laser beam. The system, which has been approved in some countries, reportedly does not destroy hair or healthy cells or cause nausea.
Nyokong's early work on the system so impressed the National Laser Centre that in 2002 the Centre made her a long-term loan of equipment worth R3 million which was essential for her next research phase.
In addition to working on photo-dynamic therapy, Tebello Nyokong, the personification of the New African woman, continues to do outstanding work in training chemists, particularly women, in the sophisticated skills needed to keep South Africa at the cutting edge of scientific development.
She help other female scientists in the southern parts of Africa write research papers and apply for funding. The only woman in her department at Rhodes and the mother of two grown children, Nyokong is familiar with the academic loneliness female scientists often experience as well as the challenges of combining a career in science with the demands of raising a family. At the same time, she is convinced of the importance of women researchers.
“Female scientists act as role models for young women. They also create a scientifically literate community since they bring up children and can encourage scientific thinking quite early in life.”
Inspired by the women of Africa who work very hard with little recognition as well as by South Africa’s involvement in bringing change to Africa, Nyokong refuses to be fazed by the obstacles life puts in front of her.
“I work very hard and do not give up easily even when things are tough. I tend to take setbacks in my life as a way of working even harder. I actually get challenged by doing the ‘impossible.’”