SA scientist a Forbes 'power woman'
11 January 2013
South African scientist Dr Patience Mthunzi has been named on Forbes Magazine's 2012 list of the 20 "Youngest Power Women in Africa" - women under the age of 45 who are bringing about positive change on the continent through their influence on business, technology, science, policy or the media.
Mthunzi, a scientist at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), was recognised for her pioneering work in the area of biophotonics, a field of
science that enables microscopic study of biological molecules, cells and tissue using laser.
Mthunzi is one of only three South Africans to be listed in the magazine - the other
two are both prominent figures in the media industry.
She heard about the listing late in December, and says that making it onto the prestigious list was completely unexpected. "I feel so honoured and humbled for
being one of the three South Africans to have made it onto this list," she
International reputation, accolades
Mthunzi is fast gaining an international reputation for her work, and she says
although she doesnít work for accolades, the recognition inspires and motivates her
to do more.
In April last year, she was honoured by President Jacob Zuma with the Order of
Mapungubwe in Bronze, one of the countryís highest national awards, for her local
and international contribution in biophotonics. This order is awarded to South African
citizens for excellence and exceptional achievement.
She is South Africa's only senior scientist for the biophotonics research group within
the CSIR National Laser Centre, and she is also the first biophotonics PhD graduate in
As she was unable to study biophotonics at a local university, Mthunzi became the
first South African PhD student at the School of Physics and Astronomy of the
University of St Andrews in Scotland.
Biophotonics is an emerging area of science in South Africa. Mthunzi explains that it
is a versatile, multi-disciplinary field that can be applied to find solutions for
challenges in areas such as medicine, agriculture, environmental and life sciences.
Research conducted under the umbrella of biophotonics involves disciplines such as
physics, biology, medicine and engineering.
Part of Mthunzi's job description is to come up with novel ideas, and that is what she
loves most about her work.
She's leading a project to determine possible medical applications using laser
technology. "The field has applications for any disease," she says.
She is developing an HIV testing device that makes use of lasers to test blood
The device will be particularly useful in remote areas of the country and could
change the way HIV testing is done. "Often people in rural areas have to walk long
distances to clinics to get
tested," she says. "By the time they get there, it is too
late to draw blood and send it with a courier to be tested at a laboratory
Mthunzi explains that the testing tool would be based on site at a clinic. She would
like to design the device in such a way that it doesnít require a medical professional
to operate it.
"It will be possible to get results immediately and will be easy to use, even by
volunteer staff who receive some training," she says.
She is also working on introducing DNA and genes into stem cells and finding
applications for lasers in the treatment of cancer. "Our cancer research is looking
into ways to separate cancerous and non-cancerous cells."
A hybrid scientist
Mthunzi's interest in the field developed when she joined the CSIR's Laser Centre in
2004, as a biochemist. "I didn't even know what a laser was," she recalls. "I was
encouraged to do a PhD in laser physics, and I found the field
She's always had an interest in various branches of science such as medicine,
physics and natural sciences and even zoology. "I see science in everything."
With biophotonics, she can experiment in all these areas, but Mthunzi says the
country needs researchers who are experienced in multiple disciplines.
"If I only knew biology, I would be limited in what I can do and come up with," she
"Some people call me a hybrid because my undergraduate qualification and my
Masterís are in biology, followed by a PhD in physics, but I see myself as just a
Her peers in laser research are mostly physicists and from that perspective her
biology background is somewhat unusual. "But it has equipped me perfectly for the
job," she says.
Growing biophotonics and science in SA
Mthunzi set up a fully functioning biophotonics laboratory at the CSIR and the facility
is closely integrated with nearby
optical laboratories on the councilís campus in
Pretoria. The laboratories are within walking distance of each other, which makes
research work much easier.
She says South Africa needs more scientists and she enjoys promoting the field. She
belongs to the South African Young Academy of Science, an organisation that
contributes towards the development of scientific capacity and awareness in South
Africa and promotes science at all levels of education.
What she would like to see is a greater interest in biophotonics in the country.
Mthunzi hopes that in the future biophotonics will become an established discipline
locally and be taught as a degree.
She says young people also need mentors to inspire them because thatís what
helped her achieve her goals.
"What helped me as a child is being surrounded by good mentors," she says. "My
aunt was my mentor. She was such a guru. I wanted to be just like her." The aunt
was a teacher and the
first person in her family to obtain a Master's degree.
Other South Africans on the list
Two other South African women, both prominent figures in the media industry, were
also recognised by Forbes Magazine.
Yolanda Sangweni is a senior editor at ESSENCE.com
, one of the leading publications
for black women in the US. She is also the co-founder of AfriPOP!, an online
magazine that focuses on contemporary African youth culture, music, fashion and
film from an Afropolitan perspective.
Journalist, broadcaster and author Redi Tlhabi is the producer of a documentary on
the former South African president Thabo Mbeki. She is also a columnist for the
Sunday Times newspaper and author of Endings and Beginnings: A Story of Healing,
a book based on her childhood experiences.
Tlhabi is the host of a new talk show on Al Jazeera English television channel that
will focus on politics,
culture, music, health
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