‘How I got here’ – Nokwanda Makunga

Header Image: Photo:  Martin Van Niekerk

*An interview with Dr. Nokwanda (Nox) Makunga, Professor of Biotechnology at Stellenbosch University. Nox works on the identification of molecular and genetic regulation of the secondary metabolism in medicinal plants.

twitter: @noxthelion instagram: @nox_makunga

Please describe yourself in your own words. Do you consider yourself primarily an ethnobotanist or do you have another way of seeing yourself?

I am Medicinal Plant Scientist or biotechnologist, but these are just terms, humans like to put categories and labels. I am not necessarily an ethnobotanist, I don’t do what might be considered traditional “ethnobotany” where people go into different ecological spaces and interact with indigenous and local communities to record their knowledge. It is in between the social and natural sciences. I do have some ethnobotanical interaction and a lot of my research is based on plants used by people but we use a diverse range of biochemistry, molecular biology and plant physiology tools and even sometimes ecological metabolomics to study plants used by people in and out of their natural environments.

I do have some ethnobotanical approach because I work I with and have interactions with people that are using plants, particularly medicinal ones. It is not ethnopharmacology, the study of secondary metabolism, my research is focussed on understanding the plants themselves rather than utilising that information for drug discovery purposes. 

Describe your work/what you see as your mission

My mission is multi-layered, it has many goals. One is to try to add a new value to ancient knowledge which happens to be exploited in modern time. That is often not necessarily revered in some socio-cultural settings because it does not have a scientific validation. The reason I say this is because the information that I use is based on indigenous knowledge. In the African context, that is oral history and linked to the aboriginal knowledge in South Africa. Most of my research is on plants that have not necessarily been documented or are well-known ‘model species’. So, the work I do is to fill in particular gaps whilst trying to sustainably exploit these plants and the information at the same time.

Another indirect mission not necessarily linked to my research is to bring awareness to the fact that women and people of colour can actually do science. To highlight that this is a potential career choice for young people in South Africa where the population don’t always have an easy access to enter into STEM subjects. So, I am involved in teaching at the undergraduate level right up to PhD level. I am passionate about communicating that science to highlight to others that people that look like me are actually out there doing science.

What/where did you study? Do you think this influences you in any particular way?

I trained in microbiology and biochemistry and it was a cell-based focus. For my postgraduate studies, I decided to carry on studying plants and went into plant molecular biology and biotechnology. This was really interesting to me – exploring how we can utilise these types of technologies to answer fundamental questions that might ultimately translate to some kind of public good with plants.

I did PhD in plant molecular biology and at that time I was working Thapsia garganica. This particular species is interesting because it comes from the Mediterranean and grows in Northern parts of Africa. It has interesting compounds known to have anti-cancer activity and there is now a product that is used for prostate cancer. I worked on a plant production system using tissue culture and genetic engineering.

Post-PhD I kept thinking how I had been working on a species that grows nowhere near where I live, nor was it related to the people around me, on technologies that have no direct benefits to communities near me. I live in a country with incredible biodiversity and plants that people use. So, I thought about opportunities to utilise my skills in that could be of benefit to the people and the economy around me. So that is why I started to focus on South African plant species and directing my attention to those specifically used by people. Some of these are commercialised and I looked at the value chain from scientific discovery through to job creation linked with the plants I actually work with.

Images (above, L-R): Nokwanda with the roses, and with Dad, Oswald, and Mum, Nosisa Makunga, 1980s, Young Scientist Award, Rhodes School Festival, 1987.

Did you ever think you would work with plants growing up?

This is very interesting to me in the context of my background. My father was a botanist, and some say that he may have been the first black botanist in South Africa, Oswald Makunga. He trained in the late 1950s and that’s when he met my mum and had been doing botany ever since. If you know anything about South African history, there was a lot of division during apartheid: black people studied at black people’s universities and white people at white people’s universities. There was lots of segregation and disconnect at that time. My father trained at the University of Fort Hare which was the first university to educate people of colour at tertiary degree level.

He was a botanist until retirement and so plants were always part of my upbringing. My mum was quite influenced by my dad because of his love for plants, especially on the Iridaceae (Iris) family. She then expressed her love for plants through gardening. It is the first thin she used to do when she got out of bed, to spend the first half an hour watering plants. We spent a lot of time outside playing or sitting in the garden, or with my dad seeing something flowering when driving, he would pop out of car and botanize. This was the environment I grew up in. Some of my childhood experiences doing experiments are linked to being with my dad in the laboratory. He would get me to count seeds. The moment I could count up to 10 so I made little piles of 10. Being with him gave me a botanical legacy intimately linked with being in nature and in the laboratory too.

During my teenage years, I then knew I wanted to do biology. I was convinced I wanted to be a scientist and particularly a biologist. One of my schoolteachers, Mrs Robinson, we called her ‘Mam’ Rob’ was such a dedicated, inspiring and passionate biology teacher. She was a little bit quirky and unconventional in the way she taught science. That really helped. The light was already on, but she helped keep it on, she helped that fire burn even more.

As a teenager, you don’t necessarily want to do what your father is doing, so I chose subjects that wouldn’t necessarily lead me down the same path as my dad. But in the final year of university, I did a course in plant biochemistry and I totally loved it. It reminded me how much I loved the plant related subjects when I was at school. I kept thinking maybe I have a natural ability for working with plants. So, I decided to stop being stubborn and go with the things that turns me on, for a lack of a better phrase!

I am curious about how systems actually function because we have a limited understanding how plants do what they do. There are many questions we can ask about function, genetics and metabolism that really have no answers at this stage. That was why I decided to go into this stage for Postgraduate. I couldn’t run away from plants, even though I tried!

Was your dad really happy that you were working with plants like him?

In the Lab

I don’t think he was actually concerned with us doing science specifically, his mission was to take the opportunities that are provided for you because, for him it had not been easy coming from a rural area and the first person to get a degree there. He realised how choices can really change the trajectory of your life. He just wanted us to go out and take our own opportunities without enforcing his opinion on us. My brother is now an engineer and my sister studied a journalism.

What are you working on now?

We are working with a group of Rastafarian healers, who are the main type of traditional medicine healer here in the Western Cape. We are working with them to cultivate plants so that they can use them in products rather than relying on wild populations.  I have had to bring them all home at the moment and they are growing in the garden. One is a set of plants called doronea. 

Who was the most influential person(s) on your career? Was there ever an act of (kindness/fate) that changed your life course?

There are many, there are so many different influences throughout your career. My PhD supervisor had an influence, in terms of guiding me on tackling academia. He is still working at the age of 80 something, Professor van Staden. The environment that was created by him at the centre where I did my PhD had a strong influence. It was a really wonderful environment, so many different people from various different countries which illustrated how the diversity of ideas and thoughts is important in science. We had lots of fun, it wasn’t all work and we have gone out and become successful at what we do. These peers were very influential and have become lifelong friends, and there is still a lot of interaction with them today.

I also admire Jill Farrant who studies resurrection plants and has had an influence on me though I have never done a research project with her, I just really admire her career and how she has carried it facing the challenges as a woman scientist.

Winning the  2011 National Science and Technology Forum junior researcher award.

What was the highlight of your career? A moment you were proud of?

I think you have highlights all the way through your path but there are three that were the most exciting so far (hoping there will be others!).

I was awarded the 2011 National Science and Technology Forum Distinguished Young Black Researcher award for a junior researcher. This is almost like the Oscars of science awards in South Africa, it is very prestigious.

I have also had a teaching award which was exciting because it was directly liked to students I teach and my work in education.

And I was also invited to do a TEDx talk, at the first TED event in South Africa.

And a lowlight? Was there ever a point you looked at yourself and thought what am I doing/how the hell did I get here?

There are challenges throughout the course of life, and like coronavirus it comes in waves. There are peaks and troughs, it is the nature of academia and the nature of life. It is how you navigate those challenges that is really important and the lessons you learn from them. Sometimes you have to learn them over and over again! 

During my PhD I had many challenges that were linked to the work itself, sometimes it was not having access to the material, because the plants did not grow near me. Some experiments were really challenging and tricky e.g. setting up a genetic transformation protocol was not easy.

Also, life just happens, a few days before I was to submit my PhD, we were broken into. I was with a friend who was checking all my references in the thesis. We had worked late and left the window open. Someone took the opportunity to enter and take our things. I didn’t lose my laptop, or work thankfully, but I lost my identification documents and had to go and organise personal admin instead of wrapping up my PhD. I was already tense and anxious to get my PhD in on time and in this final stage, it just got in the way. It was such a time waster, standing in queues. I kept thinking ‘why now!’. It had me in tears. Instead of submitting in December, I had to submit it in March. I was staying with another PhD student, Anna Spenceley, who also came back and had to rewrite a whole batch of her thesis.

I saw that we were having crisis at the same stage. I think this is part of the PhD process, something will take you out of it and challenge you, whatever the reason. Some people think a PhD should be a stunning piece of work and get so stuck in making it perfect and beautiful. You will never have perfection; you just have to do it through the challenges.

What would be your top advice for a student of ethnobotany?

My no. 1 tip, especially if you are doing traditional ethnobotany, interacting a lot with people and doing interviews, is that you’ve got to be able to build trust. It is so important. You have to understand that you are working within a system where there are social structures that you have to take into great consideration and reverence. This is especially true in places like South Africa where sometimes researchers aren’t always trusted, linked to South Africa’s political history. The utilisation of medicinal plants and the practice of Traditional Knowledge Systems was outlawed by the government so when you come from a different social platform, the ‘ivory tower’ of the university and you go to a community who has different levels of education, you cannot go there with a great ego.  You need to understand YOU are the one that needs to learn from these people with a different worldview, different types of knowledge just as sophisticated as yours, and you cannot undermine that. Also, if you make promises to people, live up to those promises. If you say you will come back and share results you need to make sure you do that. Have integrity.

In South Africa we have laws set up with Nagoya Protocols and CBD, so If you are working with medicinal plants, even if you think you are not bioprospecting, you have to get a “Discovery permit.” So, if we do uncover anything that may ultimately lead to a commercialised product, we share those benefits with the communities that shared the knowledge. To prevent biopiracy.

Nokwanda’s PhD graduation, 2004, with best friend Carol Roskruge.

Some communities are reluctant to share with researchers, they think you are there to steal knowledge, go off and make money and disappear.  So, to be ethical and clear is very important as an ethnobotanist.

You also need good social skills, you cannot interact with others well if you do not have those skills. You need a social intuition. If you are sensing reluctance or if a conversation should go ahead, you need to be able to respond to that.

A preferred image

How do you see the future of ethnobotany? i.e. new trends, areas not yet researched, areas that are over researched? What do you see as the most important mission of ethnobotany for the future?

I think in terms of ethnobotany, sometimes there is a lot of qualitative research which is valuable and great, but it also wonderful to look at new technologies and developing fields in computational sciences and data science management so I see an integration of these technologies more and more.

Digitisation and conservation of knowledge that can be accessible to people who would not have access to this info before. I say this because even in the most rural parts of SA, you may think that local communities don’t necessarily have access to global information. But they do have access as many have mobile phones. For example, if you work on a thesis that ends up in a library, think about how to make that information open to them. More knowledge sharing between researchers and communities and ethnic communities is needed.

Have you any ‘must read’ science books?

Most of the time I read South African botanical books Erik von Hake books, who is also an ethnobotanist.  He has a set of great guides to take to the field. I interact with these books a lot.

Two ladies Dr Evodia Setati and Dr Thato Motlhalamme who published on black women scientists in south Africa [Holding The Knife’s Edge: Journeys of Black Female Scientists]. It had such a strong influence on me. Thato was doing her PhD at the time and said one of her struggles was not having access to black female scientists. She wanted to buy a book that would keep her inspired. But there was nothing, so she realised someone had to do it to highlight these voices. So, while finishing her PhD and starting up a Post Doc, she did this with Evodia. I love that conviction and taking an idea and making it into something tangible. When I received that book last year, I was so grateful to have been included and so grateful that they went for it and made it happen. It has inspired me to possibly generate my own book to make a school-level plant science book. I often feel that plant sciences are not taught so well at school and it can put young learners off. They then become obtuse as to how important plants are to our lives.

What do you do in your downtime? Any secret hobbies?

I have many secret hobbies!  Some are not so secret. During the time of my Masters, I became a qualified group trainer instructor which is a fancy way to say an aerobics instructor. I have taught for 15 years. So, some students in my biology class are also in my aerobics class. I used to teach first thing in the morning and this allowed me to go on to sit in front of a computer for the rest of the day. If you are tired in the evenings, a class wakes you up. My favourites are dance inspired aerobics. It energises me to do another three hours in the evening!  I don’t teach anymore but I make sure I exercise and lots of walks to spot seasonal flowers. I did a 15km hike the other day and saw 15-20 different types of Erica.

Doing a lot online at the moment I find I am more efficient when I have breaks. You can sit in front of laptop all day but the work quality goes down.  You lose your vocabulary in that zombie mode. But the moment I break from that and when I am doing the exercise, I get the inspiration. I started with some online exercise when the gyms were shut and I have continued with that. I have been doing lots of hiking as well as I enjoy being outside in nature.

Another hobby is art, it was almost a conflict when choosing my matriculation subjects: would I choose art or other subjects? The way the school set up was that you had to choose between art or biology. My mum said if you have an inherent talent such as art you can always go back to it, but hard to pick up on the science again so I ended up choosing biology. I like drawing and painting. I don’t do enough of it but I express my artistic nature in different ways like making jewellery, and flower arranging.

What is your favourite plant and why?

I don’t have one, I am so fickle! I will go with a group of plants that are fascinating me at the moment, Succulents. South African succulents. We went on a massive collection last year, to the Karoo which is a place of great biodiversity. We met with up with so many succulents that were flowering and also those that have different morphological forms. The diversity of succulents is amazing. It also fascinates me that these plants living in such extreme environments survive so well.

The succulent Karoo: Goegap Nature Reserve landscape. Springbok, Northern Cape, South Africa. Wikimedia Commons CC BY.

*An interview with SEB Student council member, Kim Walker. This is part of a series interviewing ethnobotanists on their career path and experiences. To read more of these, click on the Interview/Bio category in the side panel. If you would like to interview someone, please email Kim at students@econbot.org

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