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Dr Patience Mthunzi

The Order of Mapungubwe in

Dr Patience Mthunzi Awarded for:
Her achievement in the field of biophotonics and her invaluable contribution to scientific research in South Africa and internationally.
Profile of Dr Patience Mthunzi

Dr Patience Mthunzi was born on 2 May 1976 in Orlando West, Soweto. After matriculating from Reasöma Secondary School in 1994, she enrolled for a degree in Psychology at the University of South Africa. However, during 1996, her deep love for science deflected her attention to a BSc degree (Biological Sciences), followed by Honours (1999) and Master’s (2002) degrees both in Biochemistry, at the University of Johannesburg (former Rand Afrikaans University).

She holds a PhD (2010) in Physics (Biophotonics – Optical Tweezers Area) from the University of St Andrews, Scotland, United Kingdom (UK). She is the first known person in South Africa to qualify for a PhD in this field of study. This fairly new aspect of medical research focuses on the use of laser light for micro-manipulating biological material to carefully study their intricate processes. She started employment at the National Laser Centre (NLC) of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in the Biophotonics Group in October 2004. Between November 2005 and April 2006, she set up a fully functional cell-culture facility at the NLC before commencing her PhD (May 2006) in the UK.

She is currently a senior scientist researcher at the CSIR’s NLC, leading single cell and/or molecule biophotonics projects. According to Dr Mthunzi, biophotonics is a true mixture of physics, medicine, chemistry, biochemistry and biology. This field of study allows investigating the interaction of laser light and biological material, such as DNA, proteins, organelles and whole mammalian cells, including pluripotent stem cells. Her work at the NLC-CSIR is varied. The practical science part involves project management and experiments in the following areas of expertise: optical cell-sorting in both fluid-flow and fluid-flow-free micro-sample chambers via the use of novel optical landscapes.

She also has extensive knowledge in photo-transfection studies using femtosecond laser pulses for gene delivery into mammalian cells and pluripotent stem cells. In addition, she has solid experience in low-level laser-tissue interaction studies, molecular biology procedures, virology (including HIV-1 work), biochemistry and embryonic stem cell-biology.

Laser technology holds a great deal of potential in biomedical research, allowing detailed work to be non-invasively performed on a single molecule and/or cell level. Dr Mthunzi explains that the use of optical tweezers, a laser-based instrument, has allowed them to “separate cancer cells from healthy cells”, but only on a single layer of cells so far.

According to Dr Mthunzi, stem cells have become an important and attractive field of study in research because of their ability to become any type of cell in the human body.

Mthunzi also gets involved on the human-capital development side: she trains and supervises students in the laboratory; and mentors scholars and undergraduates. Beyond that, she does quite a bit of writing. As a researcher, she has published popular Science and peer-reviewed journal articles (some invited). She also serves as a reviewer for the journal Biomedical Optics, she was an external moderator for the Biomedical Technology IV module at the Tshwane University of Technology, is a member of the CSIR’s HIV/AIDS committee and is a member of the CSIR’s Health Flagship Core Team.

She attends and contributes to both local and international conferences.

In addition, she often gets invited to give guest lectures at conferences, higher education institutions, workshops and science festivals on optical cell sorting, photo-transfection, low-level laser therapy and HIV-1 glycoproteins for vaccine development. In 2010, she received two Best PhD Student Awards from the CSIR. During September 2011, she was selected among hundreds of applicants to attend and participate in the IAP/World Economic Forum’s “Summer Davos” Conference in Dalian, China. Only four outstanding young scientists got selected by the Academy of Science of South Africa to represent South Africa at this global meeting.

Dr Mthunzi‘s story is important because she reflects a creed of South Africans who are blazing new paths to success. She is part of a growing number of South African academics who have decided that there is no limit to advancement through education. Her ambition is to put South Africa on the map through innovative research in the world of photonics.