It was an acute interest in the nutritional and industrial potential of drought tolerant crops that tipped Nomusa Dlamini towards a career in biosciences.
From a young age Dlamini knew she wanted to make an impact on people's lives. Initially she thought it would be as a doctor, like the brilliant heart surgeon, Chris Barnard, she had read so much about. Or she imagined that she would follow in her parents' footsteps and become a teacher.
However, while completing a BSc in biochemistry and biological sciences, she discovered the world of food science and was immediately attracted by the newness of the field, and its potential to make a difference in the lives of thousands. "Biosciences has an imperative role to play in achieving sustainable food security and reducing poverty," believes Dlamini. "Aspects such as rising food prices, concerns over global climate change and the energy crisis have ushered in a new era of challenges and opportunities and scientists stand at the forefront of the fray." She completed her MSc in food science at the University of Reading, UK in 1992.
Today she is part of the product and process development group at the CSIR's Biosciences unit where she researches the extraction of prolamin proteins from cereal crops like maize, sorghum and millet.
Because these are insoluble in water, such proteins have largely been considered of little or no nutritional value, but Dlamini and her group are exploring the potential of these for use in biodegradable packaging materials. "Roughly 58 million metric tonnes of sorghum are produced annually, across the world," says Dlamini, "with Nigeria being the largest producer in Africa with about 4,8 million tonnes. The benefit of putting these proteins to use effectively and economically is obviously immense."
Dlamini's research is lab-based where she does small-scale protein extractions, characterises the protein, and offers advice to the engineers about which processes to optimise to get the best from the protein.
Dlamini was born and grew up in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. Both her parents were teachers and exposed her inquisitive mind to the wonderful world of books. "It's always been in my nature to be curious," says Dlamini. She remembers being a child playing in a flower garden and, despite words of caution from her parents, being determined to find out whether a bee really stings - and if so, why?
Before joining the CSIR, Dlamini spent 10 years as a university lecturer where she taught undergraduate courses in food science and technology as well as applied nutrition. But she could never quite shake the desire to immerse herself in research. "After 10 years of teaching, I decided to pursue my PhD in food science and technology at the University of Pretoria and later at Texas A&M University, USA," she says.
Apart from being a scientist, Dlamini is also a mother of two girls, aged 13 and seven. She believes her ability to fulfil both these demanding roles is thanks to the support of her husband. "Both of us are actively involved in raising the children," she says. "We are 'equal partner parents' who share the responsibilities and the joys of parenting."
Dlamini stresses the importance of balancing life and work. She sets aside time to spend with her children and doesn't allow work to impede. She believes this special time is not only good for the kids but also helps her to unwind. "However," she adds, "being busy is not a bad thing. It shows my girls that you have to work hard to reach your goals." She believes it will also encourage them to be passionate about their school work and the decisions they make about their futures.
Enquiries: CSIR Communication