Professor Nokwanda Makunga: Advancing the world with Medicinal Plant Biotechnology

Affectionately known as the “Twitter Streets”, the academic networking on Twitter has taken the world by storm. I am pleased to introduce to you, Associate Professor Nox Makunga who I identified on social media, particularly on Twitter. Prof Nox grabbed my attention a few months ago when I realised how dedicated she is to scientific research. We have very few black South African young women researchers and it is most precious to spot one as influential and committed as Prof Nox. I tweeted her in hopes of securing an interview with her. Of course, I did not expect her to be so welcoming and eager to be interviewed by an underdog like me. Prof Nox responded! She actually responded to ME and was more than willing to do the interview.

Nokwanda Makunga was born in Alice, Eastern Cape, South Africa. Alice is home to the University of Fort Hare which turned 100 in 2016. She is very connected to this institution as she believes that being born and growing up in Alice, around such an influential university has played a significant role in her becoming such an avid young black woman researcher, today. Nokwanda’s dad was an academic who worked at the University of Fort Hare, “virtually his whole entire life” and one of her earliest memories were within the walls of the university surrounded by a very academic community. Nox reminded me that it is always said that offspring of first time graduates are likely to have very positive futures as they have a high affinity for valuing education. She uses herself as a perfect example of this, as her dad was a first time graduate from a small village in Whittlesea, Eastern Cape of South Africa. Prof Nox, with the influence of rural background, an academic world and being a daughter of a first time graduate has worked her way up to become a multi-faceted young woman scientist specialising in medicinal plant biotechnology. She was professionally trained to be a molecular biologist, expertise that allows her to dabble in the world of biotechnology. The main building blocks of her research include the use of biotechnology to study and understand plant metabolism, additionally to conserve indigenous medicinal plants. On the other hand, Nox has a great appreciation for the indigenous knowledge that is attached to the use of the medicinal plants. The knowledge is carried by people and even though she is in such a technologically driven environment in terms of her work, she still has a foot in the social and cultural aspect of preservation, ethnobotany and plant biotechnology.

 

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Fort Hare University in Alice, Eastern Cape of South Africa

 

Nox’s interest and success in the world of STEM was not influenced by just a single individual. Her heed and engagement with STEM comes from watching her dad and helping with experiments in the laboratory at a very young age of about five. She recalls that it was in fact as soon as she could count to 10. Her dad would take them to the lab in the evenings or on Sundays to assist with counting maize seeds, and those are the very first experiments she has fond memories of. She jokingly says that she was a “5 year old technician” for her dad. Prof’s dad would also take them to conferences, and this, of course, exposed them to an academic society that was thoroughly grooming and polishing. One of their family friends at the time was Professor Seretlo who was the Dean of Science and a great advocate for STEM and education in general. Her Biology teacher was one of the dominant individuals who unintentionally steered her towards this career choice as she was immensely passionate about the subject she taught. Nokwanda’s biology teacher was one of the first teachers to instil in her learners that STEM is “doable for females”! She remembers her as an excellent role model in terms of STEM and playing a significant role in how she took up biology and started asking questions about how the world works. At university, the interest became particularly about cell systems and nucleic acid biochemistry which led her to further her studies and complete an Honours, a Masters and PhD degrees in Molecular Biology.

Professor Nox Makungain the laboratory. Image by Cape Bush Doctors
Professor Nox Makunga in the laboratory. Image by Cape Bush Doctors

 

Within society, Professor Makunga’s work aims to bridge the gap between indigenous knowledge which some may regard as being simple and archaic. She additionally works towards linking the medicinal plant world with the very modern and technological field she works in because this all adds value to indigenous knowledge which is linked to African traditions, cultures and histories. On the other hand, her work ensures that there is a global awareness of indigenous knowledge systems that are based on African cultures and additionally proliferates the understanding of indigenous African plants within a global space. This is done through her drug discovery related work and her heightened interest in understanding the plant biochemistry of South African plants, building knowledge around South African flora. As a woman in STEM, Prof Nox says it is a recurring challenge having to prove herself all the time. Having to consistently show that she is just as good as the next person, particularly, just as good as her male (especially white) counterparts. She points out that most times it is magnified that, “you got that position because you are a black woman with a Ph.D. in molecular biology”. Therefore, even as the accomplished and hardworking role model she is, Nox continuously has to prove that she is qualified and deserving. The woman in STEM “judgement” extends to her social circles where she is judged for choosing to be a black woman academic. She remembers being asked by a male friend why she is pursuing a Ph.D. as that will limit her chances of getting a partner who is not intimidated by her and wants to settle down (I relate).

Prof Nox Makunga’s advice to anyone who would love to follow in her path is, “Those decisions that you make even much earlier on in life can determine what happens in your future. When an opportunity presents itself, first try and understand what that opportunity is and how it can change your future”.

Girls and Women in STEM articles by Prof Nox/ where she is featured:

Africa must bust the myth that girls aren’t good at maths and science

Women scientists lag in academic publishing, and it matters

How decolonization could reshape South African science

 

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