“I was reading about the discovery of penicillin and how it was actually through a mistake. That led me to become interested in science,” said Tozama Qwebani-Ogunleye, winner of the 2011 Department of Science and Technology (DST) and TATA-Africa Woman in Science Awards. She is currently a Project Manager at the Institute for Traditional Knowledge and Traditional Medicine-Dihlare Remedy hosted by the Vaal University of Technology.
The fact that Tozama was able to take this interest to fruition is a testament to the person that she is, despite the obstacles she had to overcome to make it through high school and the rigours of varsity life.
Hailing from the small Eastern Cape town of Bizana, Tozama knew that she would have to grasp all the opportunities that presented themselves if she were to realise her dream.
“In my Matric year there were only three of us taking mathematics at higher grade, so we had to attend the class for the standard grade maths and teach ourselves the higher grade syllabus,” said Tozama, explaining that the teachers, although very supportive, were not trained to do so.
Her parents bought her all the text books she needed to tackle higher grade maths and on Saturday mornings, while other learners were enjoying themselves, she was back at school with the other two high graders teaching themselves.
Tozama remembers how they bought the Sowetan newspaper and would go straight to the middle of the paper for the weekend maths insert, comparing their equations and answers from the previous week to the newspaper’s answers.
“It was great getting those equations right and then attempting the week’s new sums. We also got an old TV set and watched Mr William Smith teach maths and science on the Learning Channel on SABC3.”
Tozama’s hard work paid dividends though. In Grade 10, she achieved distinctions for all her subjects, including science and maths, for which she achieved 97% and 98%, respectively. As a consequence, she was called to the principal’s office in the first term of the following year and told that she had been selected to represent South Africa at a youth event in Vienna, Austria.
It was an opportunity of a lifetime – the entire trip, the airfare, accommodation and a generous amount of spending money was given to her and she got to meet up with other pupils from all over the world, as well as dignitaries from South Africa and Austria.
“I am forever grateful to my school, the Eastern Cape government and the South African government,” Tozama declared, “but in hindsight I see how it was my hard work and the marks that I achieved that paved the way for me to be considered in the first place.”
“I say this because many people looked at my situation and said it must have been luck that I was chosen, others that I was just lucky to be born clever, as if being clever is reserved for the select few.”
“ I personally think that the word ‘clever’ is misused; I believe that anyone can be ‘clever’ if they are willing to pay the price for what they want to achieve and that price is hard work. Taking that into account, it could be said that luck, in this context, is nothing more than a lot of preparation meeting with a great opportunity.”
Arriving at the University of Cape Town (UCT) brought with it pleasure and pain. Pleasure because she was at university seeing and learning new things, and pain because the reality of her limited schooling finally struck home.
While most of her classmates were acquainted with all the tools and materials in the different laboratories, many of these had up until then been nothing more than a word or a picture in a textbook to the young student.
“I had never seen a microscope before, let alone touched one or used one,” Tozama said. “I spent the whole of the first year trying to catch up with the rest of my classmates, staying at university until after five every day when they locked up.”
Notwithstanding the hard work, Tozama still struggled with parts of her course during the first year, flunking biochemistry and slipping down to a D for biology. This came as a shock having become accustomed to attaining A grades during her school career.
Undaunted by the fact that she was doing better in the rest of her subjects, Tozama tackled the second year with vigour, ending top of her class and winning the Best Student of the Year Award in Physical Science PHY209S.
“It was great winning that award but on the downside, I only managed to get a D for biochemistry, the second time, and that made me realise that I could not justify all the hours I put into that subject with a result like that, so I decided to cut my losses and concentrate on what I was good at.”
Tozama completed her MSc studies at UCT, majoring in medicinal chemistry and thereafter joined the CSIR on a studentship which enabled her to complete her PhD, at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits).
It was at that time that she met Dr Joe Molete, the then Director of Biosciences at the CSIR, who was to become her mentor. “I initiated student seminars as well as a leadership development initiative and Tozama jumped at both opportunities,” Joe said.
Tozama became very involved in those two groups, to the extent that she actively mobilised other students to become involved and was always looking for additional resources and opportunities to speak to her mentor about various leadership issues.
In 2011, she won the CSIR Biosciences Student of the Year Award and in 2015, she submitted her PhD dissertation for review, confident that she will receive the doctorate she has worked so hard.
“My PhD work centered on finding an anti-microbial compound which will inhibit bacterial activity that can be used in the fight against tuberculosis (TB) and to a lesser degree, cancer,” said Tozama. South Africa has the highest rate of TB infection in the world and Nigeria, where her husband hails from, has the fourth highest.
Thus far, Tozama’s work has been very encouraging, having already identified four compounds that show anti-cancer activity and one compound which shows anti-TB activity. “One never knows how far or close one is from finding a cure or treatment, but I think we are very close, that the answer is staring at us and we just need to see it,” she asserted.
What sets her research apart from research in the same area is the fact that her research group is the first in South Africa to steer away from using harmful synthetic catalysts and replacing those with naturally occurring enzymes.
“All the methodologies and compounds we are using in this process are novel.”
They look at what they can find in their own backyard, focusing on African plants, in a quest to find a suitable and effective compound.
The hardships and obstacles that Tozama faced during her lifetime have not stopped her on this journey called life, but have rather tempered her and sharpened her mind’s eye to the needs of this world and, in particular, to South Africans.
“I was able to get where I have because of an ability to take the initiative and lead myself,” said Tozama, adding that a lack of leadership in our families, communities and government is the reason for the country’s problems.
“Look at yourself! What can you do? Don’t wait for someone else to help you because if we all individually embrace self-governance most of our problems will disappear.”
This philosophy has encouraged her to write a book entitled 20 Fantastic Life Lessons; Insights from my Life Journey, which she hopes will inspire people to begin taking responsibility for leading themselves.
She believes that young people need help to discover that we are all leaders in one manner or another, even if it is limited to just being self-leaders, and therefore she volunteers her time in various projects.
“Leadership is not taught but activated through a teacher and always self-discovered.”
She was part of the NRF 2014 Role Modelling Campaign in which she shared her leadership journey with pupils from across the country to encourage young scientists to enroll for their PhDs. In 2016, she was listed as one of the outstanding young South Africans in the top 200 Young South Africans by the Mail and Guardian newspaper.
She is one of the mentors for the Khulisa Global Mentorship Movement. This is a platform that allows fellow South Africans and global citizens to make a meaningful contribution to the lives of those who need it most.
Apart from her commitments as a scientist, leadership mentor and now author, Tozama hopes to one day have her own radio talk show.
“I have been excited to watch Tozama balance her family responsibilities as wife and mother with her ambitions as a scientist and role model and have no doubt that she will end up fulfilling a dream of hers to combine her passion for media with her science career,” Joe stated.
So stay tuned to the airwaves. In the not too distant future Tozama will surely lead herself to find a way for her face and voice to reach into homes across South Africa, if not across the oceans too.