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Dr Patience Mthunzi

Dr Patience Mthunzi is a research group leader at CSIR in Pretoria and holds a PhD (2010) in Physics (Biophotonics – Optical Tweezers Area) from the University of St Andrews, Scotland - the first South African to qualify for a PhD in this field of study.

Her research focuses on the use of laser light for micro-manipulating biological material to carefully study their intricate processes. She uses laser "tweezers" to try and separate diseased cells from healthy ones, which in turn allowed her to devise a way to introduce anti-retroviral drugs straight into cells infected with HIV. She's also developed a way to use laser pulses to target drug delivery into cells.

Dr Patience Mthunzi was born in Orlando West, Soweto in 1976. 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 joined the CSIR's National Laser Centre (NLC) 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 studies in the UK.

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.

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.

She 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.

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