National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF)

Prof Usisipho Feleni

For her contribution in electrochemistry.

Prof Usisipho Feleni, an associate professor in electrochemistry at UNISA, began her career with a mind to help people living with HIV.

“I had lost an aunt at a very young age who was taking this medication,” she says. Now, she wants to find ways to monitor the concentration of any drug that would affect humans.

During her PhD studies, she developed a sensor prototype to detect a breast cancer drug in patients. This technology could help doctors determine how quickly the drug metabolises in an individual for better personalised care. 

Feleni shared this innovation with the public through many media interviews in 2016, and has gone on to win several local and international awards and fellowships since.

Her team is currently working on technologies that could be used to monitor drug contaminants like antibiotics and painkillers in wastewater, and she is tackling other sensing technologies around HIV, cholera and Covid-19.

With her first patent submitted, Feleni says it is critical to develop such technologies locally. She hopes to support the Africa Agenda 2063 by producing materials that are cheap but highly sensitive, eventually resulting in marketable products and skilled jobs.

“Not everybody is interested in being in academia, but people want to be in innovation.” she says. “So it is very important for us to start generating data that lead to patents, so that we could open companies that will be focusing on diagnostics in South Africa.”

She adds that we need in-house diagnostic centres to train the next generation, and that developing her own students’ skills is a key driver for her. She currently supervises several master’s and doctoral students, as well as postdoctoral fellows.

“I want to ensure that my students are also gaining some experience, and making connections at a young age, so that they can be very competitive in future,” she says. 

Feleni herself has spent time at several universities abroad, including in the United States and Spain, and will soon be heading to China. She collaborates widely and is also a visiting lecturer at the University of the Western Cape.

Prof Usisipho Feleni won the TW Kambule-NSTF Award: Emerging Researcher for an outstanding contribution through research and its outputs over a period of up to 6 years of research work from the commencement of the research career, predominantly in South Africa, prizes sponsored by the South African Young Academy of Science (SAYAS). — ScienceLink

Read the special Mail & Guardian supplement about all the NSTF-South32 Award winners.

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