Women's Month 2023: Itumeleng Zosela

Women’s Month 2023: Itumeleng Zosela

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.

Ms Itumeleng Zosela is a PhD candidate in Physiology (Nanomedicine) at Nelson Mandela University (NMU). She is funded by the NRF for her PhD studies and was also a DSI-NRF Intern.

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

In 2016, I received a DSI-NRF Internship and was placed at the University of the Western Cape. During this internship, I had the privilege of working under the mentorship of Prof Thandi Mgwebi. I experienced difficulties finding a job after completing my BSc in Microbiology, and I was starting to lose hope of pursuing a career in the science field. However, the internship proved to be a turning point in my academic journey.

Under the mentorship of Prof Mgwebi, I encountered a remarkable role model who inspired me to further my studies. Her success and dedication demonstrated that investing in higher education truly pays off. As I immersed myself in the academic environment, I had the opportunity to meet extraordinary women like her, as well as other individuals from diverse fields within academia. These encounters reignited my passion for the STEM field and kindled a desire to pursue postgraduate studies.

One significant aspect of my internship was working with the Southern African Systems Analysis Centre (SASAC), an NRF initiative focused on supporting PhD students with projects centred on systems analysis. This experience exposed me to interactions with PhD students from different universities and experts in the scientific community. Working on this project provided invaluable insights and further fuelled my interest in advancing my studies.

Presently, I am fortunate to be funded by the NRF for my PhD studies. This scholarship not only assists me in covering tuition fees but also supports my living expenses. Importantly, it serves as a vital source of income, enabling me to support my unemployed parents. Moreover, being a recipient of an NRF scholarship opens opportunities for international collaborations and networking, which I am eager to explore.

Overall, I am deeply grateful for the opportunities that the NRF has provided for me. It allowed me to build connections with some of the brightest minds in academia and rejuvenated my passion for scientific research. As I continue my academic journey, I eagerly anticipate the prospects of growth and discovery that lie ahead through these enriching experiences.

What has been your study/career journey?

My study journey has been a fulfilling and dynamic pursuit of knowledge and expertise in the field of biological sciences. I did my undergraduate in BSc Microbiology at the University of Pretoria. During my undergraduate studies, I was intrigued by the idea of using the knowledge of microorganisms to improve medical treatments. I found immense satisfaction in exploring their biology and understanding how they interact with the human body. This motivated me to explore further and pursue a BSc (Hons) in Medical Biosciences at the University of the Western Cape. In my Honours program, I specialised in virology.

After completing my Honours degree, I found myself drawn to the exciting field of nanomedicine and cancer studies. This interest stemmed from my unwavering dedication to disease treatment and my desire to explore cutting-edge technologies for combating illnesses. The potential of nanomedicine to revolutionise drug delivery and targeted therapies captured my imagination.

My passion for disease treatment and my fascination with nanomedicine encouraged me to pursue a Master’s degree in Nanoscience at Nelson Mandela University. This program allowed me to delve deeper into the world of nanotechnology, honing my skills in the synthesis and application of nanomaterials for medical purposes. As my knowledge and expertise in nanoscience grew, I became increasingly aware of the vast potential of nanomedicine in revolutionising healthcare and improving patient outcomes. This realisation inspired me to embark on a PhD journey, focusing on nanomedicine.

During my Doctoral research, I intend to contribute to the field by exploring novel approaches to drug delivery, developing targeted therapies, and advancing our understanding of nanomaterial interactions within the body. My study journey has been marked by an unyielding commitment to disease treatment and an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. Through my research, I hope to play a significant role in advancing medical science and contributing to the development of innovative therapies that will benefit humankind.

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

My study focuses on exploring a promising approach for the treatment of colon cancer using gold nanoparticles (AuNPs) synthesised from plant materials. In initial experiments, these plant-based AuNPs have demonstrated the ability to induce cell death in colon cancer cell lines, indicating their potential as an effective treatment strategy.

My study aims to contribute to the advancement of colon cancer treatment strategies by providing valuable insights into the effectiveness and safety of using plant-based AuNPs in combination with photothermal therapy. My research expertise is in nanomedicine.

Why is your research/work important?

The potential impact of my study lies in the groundbreaking application of nanoscience in cancer research which holds great promise for revolutionising cancer treatment. The current colon cancer treatment options have some shortcomings which include treatment specificity and damage to healthy tissues. My study focus is on the application of gold nanoparticles (AuNPs) synthesised using plant materials. The AuNPs can effectively target solid tumours. This targeted approach holds immense potential for improving the precision and efficiency of cancer therapy.

One of the key aspects of this project is the incorporation of the latest developments in nanoscience, specifically, the application of photothermal elimination of cancer cells using AuNPs. This innovative technique uses the unique ability of AuNPs to convert light into heat which can be used to selectively destroy cancer cells while sparing healthy tissues and cells. By integrating this cutting-edge nanotechnology, the study aims to bring us closer to a more effective, less invasive, and affordable treatment for cancer diseases.

By contributing to the ever-growing body of knowledge in this field, my study has the potential to make a profound impact on cancer treatment, offering new hope and possibilities for patients and transforming the landscape of cancer research and care.

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?

As one of the first young black females in my community to pursue postgraduate studies in STEM, I aspire to be a beacon of hope, encouraging and inspiring them to break barriers and pursue careers in STEM fields. Being aware of the challenges and obstacles young girls face, particularly in rural areas, I am committed to giving back to my community and the university that has supported me. Through various initiatives, I intend to make a positive impact on the lives of these aspiring young women.

My primary goal is to visit schools and act as a mentor for those who wish to follow their dreams in science, an area that has historically been dominated by males. I was fortunate to have a mentor in Grade 12 who was enrolled in the University of Fort Hare’s microbiology program. Their guidance and support made a significant difference in my journey. Recognising that many of my peers did not have access to such assistance, I decided to launch an initiative in 2022. In this initiative, I visit three high schools around my village, engaging with Grade 11 and 12 classes. By sharing my own story and experiences, I aim to motivate and prepare them for the challenges and opportunities they may encounter at university. Career guidance and information about university requirements are also provided, along with practical assistance in applying to universities online using their cell phones. To ensure ongoing support, I have established a WhatsApp group where learners can reach out to me for guidance on their matric exams or any questions related to their academic journey.

My efforts are not a one-time event; I am dedicated to sustaining this initiative for the next five years and I plan to introduce a structured mentorship program for young black girls who are still in high school and aspire to pursue STEM careers. Through this mentorship program, I hope to foster a nurturing and supportive environment where these aspiring scientists can receive guidance, encouragement, and valuable insights. By fostering a strong network of support and empowering young women with knowledge and confidence, I aim to challenge the existing perceptions in STEM fields and create a more diverse and inclusive scientific community.

As a woman in science, I am determined to be a catalyst for positive change, opening doors for the next generation of female scientists in my community and beyond. By inspiring and supporting young girls in their pursuit of STEM careers, I aspire to contribute to a more equitable and vibrant scientific landscape where everyone can thrive and reach their fullest potential.

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

The advice that I would give to young girls that are interested in STEM careers is to always believe in yourself and be your own cheerleader, no one can believe in yourself more than you. Being confident in who you are and what you want to do is the stepping stone to a great future. And always surround yourself with people that will empower you to be the best version of yourself. Having a mentor that will guide your journey is very important.

One thing that I wish I had known as an undergraduate student is the importance of forming networks and collaboration. Also, volunteering around the lab will help you acquire different skills that will help you grow as a young scientist.

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