With a background in both biology and physics, Dr. Patience Mthunzi is poised to make big discoveries in the fields of biophotonics and disease eradication. Born in Soweto, South Africa she studied biology at Rand Afrikaans University earning B.Sc. and M.Sc. degrees after which she worked as a research assistant in the HIV Vaccine development unit at the National Institute of Communicable Diseases in Johannesburg.
In October 2004 she began her employment with the National Laser Centre (NLC) in the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. In 2006 she began her doctorate in physics at the University of Saint Andrew’s in Scotland finishing four years later and becoming the first known person in South Africa to qualify for this degree.
She is currently a senior scientist researcher at the NLC in the Biophotonics group, leading single cell and/or molecule projects. Part of her research involves using laser tweezers to attempt to separate diseased cells from healthy ones. Invited to give a TED talk in 2015 she presented her current research on using laser pulses to deliver medication to targeted diseased cells. The technology uses a three headed tool that uses a camera to locate specific cells, the pulses of an optical laser to drill tiny holes in the cell, and a drug sprinkling head that would deliver the medication to that cell. The small opening the cell would allow the drug to pass into it directly and then the cell would almost immediately reclose allowing the drug to be much more effective than current medication delivery systems. It is her hope that this targeted system could someday eradicate HIV.
In April 2012, she was bestowed the Order of Mapungubwe in Bronze, for her contribution in Biochemistry and Biophotonics locally and internationally. Presented to her by President J. G. Zuma she was the youngest recipient of such an honor. In the same year she was named one of the 20 youngest Power Women in Africa by Forbes magazine. She continues to work at the NLC as well as voluntary youth counseling in her community.
Written by Angela Goad