Dr Patience Mthunzi
“Being awarded with a National Order came as a surprise,” she says. “I still aspire to invent great things in my life as a scientist.”
She is the second person at the CSIR to receive the Order of Mapungubwe. The first one was Dr Sibusiso Sibisi, CSIR CEO, who received this Order in Silver for excellent contribution in the field of information technology in South Africa, contributing to the development of research and development (R&D) and providing business technology with analyses and strategies.
“It is daunting to be mentioned in the same sentence with Dr Sibisi, for whom I have the utmost respect,” she says.
National Orders are bestowed on South Africans who contribute to the betterment of the country in their respective fields and represent the highest award that a country, through its President, bestows on its citizens. The Order of Mapungubwe represents ingenuity and excellence, and is awarded for exceptional achievement.
Mthunzi’s name appears alongside the names of equally respected luminaries who have received this or similar honours, in various areas of science and technology such as the medical and engineering fields.
Mthunzi, a senior scientist at the CSIR National Laser Centre who obtained her PhD from St Andrews University in Scotland, is the first person in South Africa to obtain PhD in the area of optical tweezing in biophotonics. Optical tweezing allows her, for example, to non-invasively separate sick from healthy cells with near-infrared laser sources, holding promise for the treatment of degenerative diseases such as cancer.
“A conventional tweezer allows you to handle a small object using metal prongs. Similarly, laser light can be used to pick up and move whole cells and sub-cellular organelles without physically touching them,” she says.
Manager of the CSIR National Laser Centre, Dr Ndumiso Cingo, comments, "We are honoured and proud to have someone of Dr Mthunzi's calibre in our midst.”
Mthunzi says that she is resolute to push herself even further, a challenge she is keen to pursue just for the love of science. In 1960, she says, Theodore Maiman invented a laser from which, in 1986, Arthur Ashkin invented optical tweezers. “Laser technology and its beneficial use for mankind are what make me tick. I am more determined than ever to continue on this track,” she says.
She explains that the reason she does well in her research is that she is driven by passion and interest. To her fellow scientists and research colleagues, her message is simple: “Pour your heart and soul in your work. By this, I do not mean work, work, and more work, but rather love the science that you do.”
Mthunzi often receives invitations to be a motivational speaker at youth meetings and various public events. Her talks normally cover various aspects ranging from social issues, HIV/AIDS and her research work at the CSIR.
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