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Tebello Nyokong: From sheep shepherd to one of Africa’s pre-eminent scientists

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21 ICONS’ tenth icon of its second season is Tebello Nyokong, the renowned scientist, chemist and professor at Rhodes University.

Nyokong’s portrait features her in a field dressed in traditional garb and surrounded by sheep, but over her dress she wears the white coat of a chemist.

The picture is a representation of Nyokong’s standing as award-winning, internationally recognised scientist at the cutting edge of cancer research.

Yet, she acknowledges her childhood having grown up in Lesotho where the community needed the children to guard their sheep and so boys and girls only attended school on alternate days.

Nyokong has been the recipient of numerous awards including:

  • Unesco L’Oreal Award

  • Order of Mapungubwe

  • Shoprite Checkers Woman of the Year

However, she quips that her career highlight is being given her own parking bay at Rhodes University.

Nyokong’s work on cancer treatments is breaking new ground and focuses on photodynamic therapy, a form of treatment which uses the dye responsible for giving denim its blue colour.

Unless activated, the dye is completely harmless; however, when exposed to a red laser beam, it generates toxins that kill cancerous cells without affecting healthy ones.

In spite of the vital contribution she is making to her field, she does not believe that she is more important than anyone else.

“I completely object to the notion that there is anybody special in this world. We are all good at what we do. We just have to find a way of understanding what we want to do, and not ask for shortcuts.”

- By 21 Icons. Edited by Carla Bernardo, Lead SA

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