International Women's Day Interview: Tebello Nyokong

Continuing our International Women’s Day interview series, I had the pleasure of speaking to Tebello Nyokong, an inspirational member of the medicinal chemistry community with a colourful personality and a huge passion for advancing the sciences and addressing the underrepresentation of women academia.

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First, a little about Tebello Nyokong…

Born in Lesotho (South Africa), Tebello Nyokong graduated from the National University of Lesotho in 1977 and obtained a MSc in chemistry 4 years later. Nyokong received a PhD from the University of Western Ontario (ON, Canada) in 1987 and following that secured a Fulbright fellowship for post-doctoral study at the University of Notre Dame (IN, USA). Nyokong is now Professor of medicinal chemistry and nanotechnology at Rhodes University (South Africa) and is also Director of the DST/Mintek Nanotechnology Innovation Centre (NIC)-Sensors also at Rhode University. She has received a number of awards, including the esteemed L’Oreal-UNESCO award for “Women in Science” as a Laureate representing Africa and the Arab States. In addition, Nyokong has been recognized by Royal Society in Chemistry/Pan African Chemistry Network as a Distinguished Woman in Chemistry.

Can you tell us a little about the research that you are conducting at the moment?

My main research area is photodynamic cancer therapy. Imperial College in the UK has been working on it a lot, although with different molecules. Photodynamic therapy uses laser light, dyes and oxygen to act and the dyes must go only to cancer cells, otherwise it’s like chemotherapy, and that’s exactly what we’re trying to avoid. What we’re doing is combining our dyes with nanoparticles to make sure they only target cancer cells. Our dyes are also linked to molecules which are cancer specific e.g. folic acid.

What inspired you to become a scientist?

I am always afraid to talk about this [laughs] because when I started in school, I wasn’t studying sciences, I was doing the arts. I was so bored and because of that I was naughty in class! Some people think that science can be dull, but I don’t think so, I think it’s just your experience as your growing up. I realized that if I had to do a 10 page essay for my history class, I would write it in a paragraph just stating the facts, and I would feel that it was enough. I began to realize that I was not an ‘art person,’ so I swapped to do science in my final 2 years of high school – you are supposed to study science for 5 years, but I had to do it in just 2 years instead.

As a scientist, Ilike to touch things, I like to explore and I like to break things – to pull them apart and put them back together. I was brought up not to be afraid of difficult tasks or of breaking things. Honestly, teachers played a huge role in my life as I admired my science teachers a lot. They were mad enough to trust me and allow me to attempt studying 5 years of science in 2 years. When I went to university, one of the the lecturers was an American Peace Corp (Dr Gray) who really had an effect on my life.

Did you encounter any obstacles as a woman pursuing a career in science?

In some ways, the challenges women face are more significant in Africa than elsewhere, and it can depend on how educated the males are, as this can determine if women can also have a career. To be honest, when I was in high school and when I was in university, I didn’t see myself as different from men. This changed after I returned from studying for my masters in Canada. I had informed my head of department that I wanted to go back to Canada to do my PhD and he told me that it was a waste of money to continue in education, because I would have children and nothing would come of me. That was the first time I experienced prejudice as a result of being a woman. After this the Lesotho government intervened because their policy is very clear: you don’t discriminate against women under any circumstances.

I can say that I have suffered academic loneliness in my career, and it is the most terrible thing where you have utterly no one to talk to, since you don’t belong to their club, you don’t attend their golf club. You are on your own with no one to share your happiness with and no one to talk to when things are wrong because it’s a man’s world. I think it is only because I am slightly insane that I have the courage to go on!

Do you feel that women are underrepresented in science?

It depends on the science. In the biological sciences, there are a lot of women, someone said to me that, “there are so many women, that men think it’s a soft subject.” The problem is still in the physical sciences:physics, mathematics and chemistry. Chemistry isn’t doing too badly, but it is not doing as well as the biological sciences. At the university level, there are women studying, but when you go further to the level that I am at, there are fewer and fewer women.It’s because the demands of having a family take hold and the nature of research is such that you are not working from 8:00–17:00, you work long hours and are busy at weekends.Family matters take over and women leave behind their careers in science, which may be due to a lack of support.

Do you think that further action needs to be taken to promote women in science?

I think that it’s important for young scientists to have role models that are grounded and that are in touch with reality, as this proves that it is possible to advance as a woman in science.If they can see that there’s someone who has succeeded and comes from the same background as them and has a husband and children like them, then they can believe that it is possible. I think leading by example is more effective than just talking.

There is one particular South African student I taught who was hardworking and obtained her PhD, and then later got married and who serves as a good example to the other students; some of the girls think that if they get too educated they won’t find a husband, so I use this girl as a role model to talk to the others.

How can we ensure that more women progress to high level academic positions in science?

It can be encouraged by simple things. One thing they have done here at Rhodes University is to have facilities that allow you to have your children not too far from you while you are at work. Women need to be enticed back to work after they’ve given birth. Having children really is difficult because it is like having two full time jobs.

Do you have a female role model that you look up to?

Honestly, my main role models were male. As I was growing up, it was my father who made it clear that being a stereotypically ‘soft’ girl doesn’t work for him; you have got to try and do everything that men can do.In high school I really admired one of my female teachers, but again at university, it was male teachers who were my role models. Once I started to work, I was very much on my own and my role models became my students.We run a science class for students from poor schools; their determination to succeed against all odds makes them my role models.It makes me want to keep going.

Are you involved in any public outreach to promote women in science?

Yes, more so in Europe than here in South Africa. I received a L’Oreal UNESCO award and that exposed me to a lot of international organizations for women. I still work very closely with L’Oreal and I’m going there in March. I do public speaking and I do outreach online. Within my own country I actually direct my efforts towards making sure the science that is taught in schools is fun and engaging. Science can be perceived to be hard and children often feel discouraged, so I’m really focused on the young people, regardless of gender, and encouraging them to take an interest in science.

The theme for International Women’s Day 2015 is Make it Happen, what advice would you have for budding scientists to ‘make it happen’ for them?

On the whole I think that African women feel pressured to live up to a particular stereotype, which makes it difficult for us to pursue things like science. Science is not hard. I want to tell everybody that anything you work enough at will not be hard.When people ask me how I’m so intelligent, I say that I’m not intelligent, I work hard.

I think women need to remove the fear of science and the fear of a male dominated workplace. If somebody tells you “it’s not for women,” remove that fear, it’s not difficult. Like anything else, when you work at it, you can make it.

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Hannah Coaker

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