The influential chemist on nurturing confidence in students and taking inspiration from the humanities

Tebello Nyokong is professor of chemistry at Rhodes University and director of the DST/Mintek Nanotechnology Innovation Centre in South Africa. Her research currently focuses on developing photodynamic therapy methods for treating cancer. Awarded a lifetime achievement award from South Africa’s National Research Foundation in 2013, she is often named in lists of the most inspirational women in science worldwide.

For the first three years of high school, I was in the humanities doing history, geography etc. I did not enjoy them because I would be asked to write a 10-page essay, and I could do it in half a page. I was very brief and couldn’t go on and on, and my teachers would be mad at me. Today I work a lot with the humanities people. I think we should be working together in one building, in one room, while accommodating each other’s ideas.

When I got to university, there were many opportunities to do dentistry. Still, I was interested in the fact that chemistry is somehow related to medicine. Chemists can develop therapies while doctors administer them. I felt I should be at that fundamental part where I develop the drugs myself. I could actually be a part of the solution by being part of the development of drugs.

I work with lots of students. They think I’m too dangerous in the lab; they really don’t like it. I show them what to do, but they ask me to leave.

I feel we need to develop young people who are committed, who are at the forefront of research, who are motivated, who can be leaders. I like to find students in remote areas and bring them to Rhodes University.

All students must work together. Senior students help junior students; that is also a part of their training I make students think about their projects; they have to read by themselves and surprise me. They must own the project and think for themselves.

Confidence is what students need the most. I had this one student who was afraid of me. When he saw me, he would turn away. So I told him to go home and read on the topic he was working on. I told him that he would realise that he knows more about this topic when he comes back and explains it to me than I do. Some students are still not able to put their confidence into their work. I think it’s essential to give them that belief in themselves.

As a supervisor, I’ve got to be humble and realise that when students are doing the work, they will know some disciplines better. This isn’t patronising; it’s just true.

I would describe research culture as a mothering experience. As a supervisor, you want to comfort young researchers when bad news come. We can’t perpetuate this idea of human beings working only as tools. We’re human. Sometimes you have to hug them. Now you can’t hug them because of Covid-19, but sometimes you have to hug them and show them motherly love. In the life of supervisors, there’s a time to be a mother.

Before Covid-19, I would send students worldwide to spend time in Japan, China, Russia, the UK, Canada, Germany, and so on. This is important, so they learn about different realities. I also make them go and talk in conferences. They must be heard; I don’t want them to hide. They have to get up and speak.

I didn’t realise people would think I knew less because I was African

When I went to study in Canada for the first time, I was very naive. I didn’t realise people would think I knew less because I was African. That was a big shock to me and made me who I am today. I was fighting stigma all the time. Since this was 30 to 40 years ago, things could have changed now. People ask me why I left Canada. I left because I wanted to make a difference on the African continent. I did it because I am going to change the perception of African science. I am committed to the African continent; Canada made me love Africa.

In primary school, I spent alternate days tending sheep. Boys were supposed to do this, but there were none. This experience showed me that I’m just like boys when I, as a woman, am in the field. Also, being a shepherd didn’t delay my education; it made me grow more.

I wouldn’t say I made it by myself. I always had a hand. A hand from my teachers and from my father, who believed in me. We always need someone to believe in us.

The funny part about my father was that even though he encouraged me to do anything I wanted, I was still expected to get married someday, and my job would be to cook and clean. As a woman, you are sometimes encouraged to follow both paths: school and being a wife. Men are encouraged to go to school, and that’s it.