Dr Lindiwe Thete (née Nkabinde) joined the CSIR in 2004, left for academia in 2017, and returned in 2020 to throw her weight behind the organisation’s drive to improve healthcare in South Africa. From her résumé, it is easy to find the golden thread she refers to as her heartbeat: to help people who are in need.
Dr Lindiwe Thete’s desire to help people explains why medicine was her first career choice, even as a child. “My childhood painted a picture of an educated person, either as a medical doctor, lawyer, teacher or nurse. Medicine has been the centre of my core,” she says.
When entry level marks precluded her from becoming a medical doctor, she opted for a biochemistry degree, something she has not regretted once. “This field painted a much clearer picture of how I can best contribute to the healthy lives of people through scientific research.”
She quotes Lao Tzu when asked what success would look like, “He said, ‘A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step’. To me, success is the accomplishment of set goals and making a worthwhile contribution to the organisation and society.”
In the lab Instead of diagnosing and prescribing medicines for patients, her work takes her to the drawing board of how cells co-operate with pharmaceutical materials. This enables her and her team to contribute to the manufacture of the best course of treatment for diseases, varying from HIV/Aids, malaria and cancer to the current SARS-Cov-2 viruses, from both an efficacy and safety perspective.
Thete explains, “I am a cell biologist. Cell biology studies the structure and function of cells, and our interest lies specifically in the behaviour of cells when interacting with a pharmaceutical ingredient. Currently, we focus on the development and screening of drug- like candidates against various ailments, using high- throughput screening platforms, including toxicity screening.”
To ensure that all the principles of the required standards for evaluation of biologics are met, her work also includes the development or amendment of standard operating procedures, and accreditation methods earmarked to support and strengthen her department’s sustainability.
She emphasises that working diligently and observing all set protocols are key factors for success in this field. “People’s lives are dependent on the outcome of our laboratory investigations,” she says.
As a favourite, she highlights a Department of Science and Innovation-funded project on nutraceuticals, which are products from food sources that provide nutritional and medicinal benefits. “We studied food ingredients with the potential of meeting the nutritional needs of impoverished children in South Africa and further afield in southern Africa. We used state-of-the-art technology that simulates human gastro-intestinal digestion.
I received training for this at TNO-Triskelion in the Netherlands. This project aimed to alleviate poverty and targeted malnutrition in children, especially those younger than five. It had a great impact on my scientific world because I had to learn to communicate science to a society that is not necessarily science-savvy.”
Being a woman in science
There says the only obstacle she has had to face, thus far, was when her doctorate took longer than expected, “I had it all planned to a tee, until I found out that I was expecting precious cargo to safely bring into the world,” she quips. “But, I persevered and obtained my doctorate in the end.”
Current position: CSIR senior researcher
Career type: Cell biologist
Current research interest: Development and screening of drug-like candidates against various ailment using high-throughput screening platforms
Education: Doctorate in Technology (Pharmaceutical Science), Tshwane University of Technology, 2015