Women's Month 2023: Dr Nokuthula Khanyile

Women’s Month 2023: Dr Nokuthula Khanyile

August is Women’s Month, and this year the National Research Foundation (NRF) is celebrating the remarkable contributions that have been made by women researchers for the betterment of humanity. We thank all participants for sharing their stories with us.

Dr Nokuthula Khanyile is a Lecturer in Chemistry at the University of Mpumalanga (UMP). She is an NRF Thuthuka grantholder and also received funding from the NRF for her PhD studies.

What impact did the NRF have on your studies/career?

The NRF scholarship enabled me to pursue my postgraduate studies and become the first person with a Doctorate from Dludluma village. Seven years later, even though I am still the only Dr from my community, it gives me great pleasure to note that there are now many pupils who have been to varsity, hold junior degrees, or are enrolled in Master’s and PhD programmes.  

By the grace of God, through the NRF Travel Grant for international conferences, I was privileged to attend conferences in Malta and China in 2014 and 2015, respectively. My PhD was funded through the NRF Scarce Skills Postgraduate Scholarship. I currently hold an NRF Thuthuka grant, which enables me to conduct research and enhance my research skills.

What has been your study/career journey?

I was part of the first cohort that matriculated from Mbombo Combined School in 2007. From Grade 6 onwards, I knew I was going to be a scientist; I just wasn’t sure which kind. When I was in Grade 12, a former school teacher who was originally from the Eastern Cape told me about Rhodes University. He shared a lot of good things about the institution, but what captured me the most was the slogan “Rhodes University, where leaders learn”. I was in leadership positions at school, such as being the leader of the debate team for four years. I served as secretary for the learner representative council and as the chairperson for three years. Furthermore, I was a member of the school governing body for the five years I spent in high school. As an aspiring leader, choosing Rhodes University made perfect sense to me.

The second-year chemistry programme at Rhodes involved mini-research which was called an entrepreneurship programme. My group prepared an award-winning insect repellent in 2009. The thrill I got from the process of developing a project, executing it, and presenting the findings to my team affirmed that I made the right choice.

After my BSc in Chemistry and Mathematics, I enrolled in an Honours programme that introduced me to further research. I obtained my joint Chemistry and Mathematics Honours in 2012 and enrolled for an MSc in Chemistry. I worked so hard, hoping to obtain the MSc cum laude. I knew the MSc level was the last one for me to say I had obtained a distinction. By God’s grace, when the work was evaluated at the institution, it exceeded the requirements of an MSc and had to be upgraded to a PhD.

After submission of the thesis in April 2015, I joined EcoPlanet Bamboo Laboratories as a laboratory analyst and was promoted to lab manager after serving a three-month probation period. I joined the University of Mpumalanga shortly after obtaining my PhD in 2016. The now 10-year-old institution was three years old at the time. It has been an interesting journey seeing it grow: from a few programmes with the first cohort of students taking Chemistry 101 being 50 to 400+ students coming from five different programmes. I currently supervise/co-supervise two PhD students, four Master’s and three Honours students.

What is your research focus on/what is your area of expertise?

I am fascinated by the application of nanotechnology in developing materials that are beneficial in our daily lives. In my PhD study, I developed colorimetric sensors using gold nanoparticles hosted in electrospun nanofibers for the detection of dopamine – a neurotransmitter whose concentrations have been linked to neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia.

My active research projects include sensors for agricultural residues and the application of nanotechnology in developing materials with immediate societal impact. One project involves the development of an antifungal nano fertilizer derived from agro-waste that aims to enhance crop growth and protect plants from fungal infections. This project is funded by NRF-Thuthuka, underscoring its significance and potential impact on the agricultural sector.

Why is your research/work important?

I am passionate about nanochemistry and how it can be used to bring about innovative solutions to everyday life’s problems. Its interdisciplinary nature heightens its multidisciplinary characteristics as it bridges various disciplines, including chemistry, physics, biology, and engineering. I take advantage of this to collaborate with colleagues on developing materials that have a societal impact.

For example, my NRF-Thuthuka-funded project has the potential to produce a product with antifungal and fertilizer properties (a two-in-one product). A green and user-friendly product that can be used by people without specialised skills, like smallholder farmers and vendors, will allow them to keep their goods longer without being damaged by fungi.

There is still a long way to go to truly achieve equity and a sense of belonging for women, be it within the research community or society in general. How do you envision yourself contributing to this space?

Female scientists often have to make sacrifices in order to be at the top of their field. The sacrifices vary from not getting married to having one child or none. I have chosen to be a scientist who is also a wife and a mother. It is indeed a tough journey to the top as a well-established, excelling researcher and academic, where I see myself in the near future. I endeavour to keep on pushing, persistently, patiently, and always courageously.

I want to be a role model for women in science so that they don’t always have to be in a position to choose between two things that they like the most, spending the later stages of their lives wondering if they made the right decision. I intend to showcase my achievements so that my fellow sisters will see that women can excel in research and academia. I have benefited from being a mentee of the likes of Professor Refilwe Phaswana. I believe in mentorship and that there is a lot one can learn from people who have been on the same journey before or longer. I use every opportunity I get with my female students to encourage them to soldier on, no matter the circumstances. I normally get invited to speak about education at schools, churches, and other organisations. I always make sure to wear my red gown when I go to such events. This has had a great impact on my audience, especially the females, resulting in some going back to school to further their studies and some working hard to attain university enrolment.

Furthermore, I believe that when women are involved in leadership, they will ensure that the decisions taken at executive meetings don’t put down another sister. I believe that women can contribute ideas that can put an organisation or course on the map. As such, I have volunteered to take up leadership roles as Chairperson of Eagle Day Care Center and deputy chairperson of the South African Chemical Institute: North Section (SACI-North Section), where I am also the deputy chairperson of the forthcoming Frank Warren Conference.

What advice do you have for girls who are interested in STEM-related careers?

To the young girl out there who aspires to be in a STEM-related area, it is not as bad as it used to be. You have equal chances to make a mark in your chosen career. You are more capable than you can ever fathom. The main goal must not be to compete with males, which might leave you frustrated, but to make sure that in all tasks that you do, you do them to the best of your ability, give them your very best, and focus on excelling. Automatically, you will see yourself occupying spaces that women had no access to in the past. Remember, you don’t have to be super-minded to make it; that burning idea, focus, and determination will propel you to soar with the eagles.

I wish I had known about what mentorship is and its importance as early as in my MSc studies. Get yourself a mentor; with guidance, you will achieve a lot faster than someone soaring solo. 

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