100 World Class South Africans: Patience Mthunzi

2013-10-11 12:00

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Shining light of science

Last December, Forbes magazine named Dr Patience Mthunzi one of the 20 Youngest Power Women in Africa.

Mthunzi had never heard of Forbes – or its list.

Last April she received the Order of Mapungubwe from President Zuma – although, when she got the call she hung up, thinking it was a hoax.

A senior scientist in the National Laser Centre at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), Mthunzi is fast gaining international recognition for her work in biophotonics, a new science that involves the microscopic study of cells and molecules using laser light.

It can be used in environmental sciences, agriculture and medicine (she’s working on an HIV laser blood test, and using laser in cancer, stem cell and neuro-degenerative disease research).

She says, ‘Nothing is impossible.

Despite my poor background [growing up in Soweto], being taught in Afrikaans at RAU and translating my notes at night, my love of science kept me going. It still does.’

Mthunzi is the first biophotonics PhD graduate in South Africa (the course is not offered at local universities, so she had to study at St Andrews in Scotland, where she was fondly known as their ‘first Zulu physicist’), and she’s the only one heading up this kind of research at the CSIR.

A regular contributor to international journals and conferences, Mthunzi was one of only four SA scientists to attend the 2011 IAP/WorldEconomic Forum’s ‘Summer Davos’ conference in China.

‘South Africans are doing the most cutting-edge research in biosciences – we’re really at a world-class level.’

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