L’Oréal-UNESCO FWIS Young Talents Award for UKZN medicinal chemist

Nthabeleng Hlapisi (centre) with Fondation L’Oréal CEO, Alexandra Palt (right) and senior Botswana government official, Nelson Torto. Photograph: Fondation L’Oréal

Nthabeleng Hlapisi (centre) with Fondation L’Oréal CEO, Alexandra Palt (right) and senior Botswana government official, Nelson Torto. Photograph: Fondation L’Oréal

Published Dec 6, 2023


By Christine Cuénod

Nthabeleng Hlapisi, a PhD candidate in the School of Chemistry and Physics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), became the first woman from Lesotho to receive a L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science (FWIS) Young Talents Sub-Saharan Africa Award at the 14th FWIS Awards ceremony held on November 9 in Kasane, Botswana.

Hlapisi joined 24 other PhD candidates and five post-doctoral researchers who received awards for their excellent work in diverse scientific fields to solve challenges affecting the quality of life of people in Africa and worldwide.

Since 2010, more than 200 female scientists have been supported by these regional awards, which empower promising women scientists and increase their representation and contributions in tackling the world’s growing social, political, economic and environmental crises – ensuring a more sustainable and equitable future.

PhD students received €10 000 (approximately R200 000) in funding, while post-doctoral researchers received €15 000 (approximately R300 000). The week prior to the ceremony was dedicated to leadership training for award winners.

Hlapisi said receiving the award had come as a surprise and gave her a sense of joy, gratitude and a responsibility to bring other women in science along on the journey of excelling in the field. She said the recognition left her overwhelmed, but it was a testament to her hard work, perseverance, dedication as well as the beginning of growth and development.

“I believe that we rise by lifting others,” she said.

She plans on using this recognition to mentor other girls who have a background similar to hers.

The young researcher began her schooling in her home country of Lesotho and was raised by a single mother after her father’s death when she was a child. The passing of a friend’s mother due to HIV and Aids led Hlapisi to a career in a field that could provide advanced medical treatments to everyone, especially the less fortunate. In primary school, she received her first of many scholarships for excellent performance, which relieved the financial burden of education.

Hlapisi completed an undergraduate degree in general sciences, majoring in chemistry and geography at the National University of Lesotho. She later enrolled at the University of the Free State for an Honours degree in medicinal chemistry, after which she pursued her Master’s at the University of Zululand under the supervision of Professor Sandile Phinda Songca.

Drawn to UKZN by its reputation for being one of the best in Africa for studies in chemistry, as well as the facilities, infrastructure and mentorship it provides in this field, Hlapisi enrolled for her PhD at the university - joining Songca at the institution.

Hlapisi is pursuing research on encapsulating gold nanoparticles with porphyrins for the potential treatment of cancer and bacterial diseases. Continuing her Master’s studies with more application and laboratory work, she is exploring photodynamic (PDT) and photothermal (PTT) techniques to provide targeted therapy that destroys cancer and bacterial cells without harming healthy tissues.

These non-invasive techniques, already employed in countries like the United Kingdom and the United States of America, are less invasive than conventional treatments, but are still only in the research stage in Africa and have yet to progress to clinical trials. Both methods are light-mediated, where PDT uses dyes in the presence of oxygen to produce toxic oxygen to kill the cancerous cells. PTT uses nanoparticles which when irradiated with light, produce localised heat to kill the cancer cells.

Hlapisi hopes to continue with research to the post-doctoral level to refine her skills and work in a different environment, hopefully overseas. She plans to bring the skills she acquires back home, aiming to establish a research laboratory or institute to help others realise their dreams - particularly other young women.

Receiving this award provided Hlapisi with access to the research of others in Africa and opened doors to future collaborations, particularly through the professional and personal development training provided by the Fondation L’Oréal.

Hlapisi thanked the Fondation L’Oréal for the financial support, training, networking opportunities and visibility afforded by the award.

“It helps to have people beyond you. That is why this prize is very important, because it assists us in reaching those who do not know about chemistry,” she said.

She thanked her supervisor, Professor Peter Ajibade and co-supervisor Songca, who she credited as an important mentor and father-figure.

Hlapisi paid tribute to her mother, whose own educational opportunities were limited and who always encouraged her to do whatever she dreamed of. Making her late father proud is also a driving force for Hlapisi.