Science Rebel’s Career Inspired by Cinema

To commemorate National Science Week and National Women’s Month, the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science is honouring its female scientists through a Wonder Women in Science campaign.

These women are regarded as passionate, pioneering and persistent heroines making waves in the field of science. Once of the candidates for this year’s campaign is Developmental lecturer at the School of Life Sciences, Ms Seipati Mokosi.

Mokhosi, who grew up in the small village of Monontsha in the Free State, says she conducted her first experiment at the age of six using her grandfather’s cows. ‘I wanted to know if cows ate anything other than grass so I rolled an orange towards a calf. I was surprised it ate the whole orange,’ she said.

Mokhosi is doing research for her doctorate which explores ways to design magnetic nano-therapeutic delivery vehicles to ‘encourage’ neuronal cells to effectively take up therapeutics. She chose to enter the field of biochemistry after watching the 1992 film Lorenzo’s Oil, starring Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon.

This film captured the touching journey of parents caring for their son who developed adrenoleukodystrophy (X-ALD) – a neurodegenerative disease. Even though they were not scientists, they courageously used all their resources to find a cure. Their efforts contributed immensely to the world of neuroscience.

‘This movie was a defining point in my life – I remain fascinated by diseases and disorders of the brain. All my students know about this film because it made such a powerful imprint on me,’ Mokhosi said.

One of the biggest challenges she has faced as a female scientist was proving that she has just as good as her male counterparts. Traditionally, science has been a space predominantly occupied by men. ‘I have found that as a woman, your occupation is often viewed as being part of the status quo and not based on merit. It is up to me to continue to challenge this antiquated notion and shift the mindset.’

Mokhosi credits several women who have shaped her into the person she is. These women include her mother and women from her tribe. She also acknowledges Professor Tebello Nyokong and looks up to and aspires to be like her PhD supervisor, Professor Mogie Singh.

Her advice to budding female scientists is to always be curious and celebrate their individuality. ‘Keep asking questions, exploring and working hard. You have something unique to offer, and the world is waiting for your uniqueness,’ she says.

She believes the world will benefit from having more women in leadership roles. ‘I feel a woman’s world-view is often less ego-centric than a man’s and often comes from a gentler, caring perspective.’

She feels more can be done to make science education relevant as opposed to something done in a lab. ‘A lot of what we see, experience and use in our households involves science, so these concepts are often not as abstract as we perhaps think. We need to take this awareness to communities, to enlighten and empower them,’ she said.

Earlier this year, Mokhosi received an National Research Foundation Thuthuka Grant to support her work. Her immediate plan is to complete her PhD and bring quality teaching and research productivity to UKZN. Long-term, she wants to forge meaningful inter-disciplinary collaborations around the country and the world to establish a Neuroscience Research Unit.

* In August, the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science will present articles on each one of its five Wonder Women in Science.

Visit: wwis.ukzn.ac.za to read all the articles.

Words and photograph: Sashlin Girraj