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Young South African Scientist in Important Scientific Discovery

In South Africa, where there is severe shortage of science students, a 26-year-old black scientist has made an important discovery that could hold promise in the field of nano-technology, a relatively new field that deals with tiny structures built at the molecular level. The young scientist also has the potential to be a much needed role model for the sciences.

For years nano-technologists have been searching for lubricants that are light enough and suitable for use in humans to enable their tiny robots to move through the human body. And now South African Olihile Sebolai has discovered a yeast which produces what his study director, Lodewyk Kock, calls a cascade of lubricants that hold the promise doing just that.

"Especially the application of this research is important because people are looking for lubricants to use in micron space - so it is a very small space, and its applied to robots that are used to operate in these kind of [spaces invisible to the human eye]," said Lodewyk Kock. "And they are called nano-robots and we forecast that these yeast lubricants might in future be used to lubricate these miniature robots."

Professor Kock, who heads the Department of Microbial- Biochemical and Food Biotechnology at the University of Free State, says scientists hope in the future to use the miniature or nano-robots to enter the body to perform revolutionary procedures such as mechanically cleaning up clogged human arteries, removing or killing cancer cells and more.

"Also nano-robots in medicine, or the futuristic use of nano-robots in medicine, for instance to help the body combat certain infections," he said. "You know they envisage nano-robots that will just zap certain bacteria and just kill them, and thereby helping the immune system of humans."

Mr. Sebolai made the discovery while working for his masters degree in micro-biology. He said his study aim was to bio-prospect for a yeast that produces light prehistoric lubricants, and a lot of them.

"And it so happens that during one of my analytical tests that I conducted here, I was able to see this very special yeast that had the ability to do so," said Olihile Sebolai. "That was really the main crux of my study, I had to really isolate that special yeasts that had the ability to produce really large quantities of these compounds and also variety of them."

Mr. Sebolai, who was 25-years-old on completion of his masters last year, was just 15 years old at the end of apartheid. He was educated in Thaba 'Nchu, a black village in the then Orange Free State and where he was fortunate enough to attend a high school with a strong focus on the sciences. This was a rare phenomenon in apartheid-era black education.

And it was here that Mr. Sebolai's lifelong interest in micro biology began.

"We were offered career guidance classes - during one of the classes I was told about micro-biology as a subject and that is when I really got hooked on the subject micro-biology," he said. "From there I decided it is really a career path I need to follow, because of its possible application in industry and also in medicine."

Mr. Sebolai's thesis was awarded six prizes by his university, including that of the best thesis overall in 2004. It was published in the United States in a journal (Prostaglandins and Other Lipid Mediators) specifically related to the topic of his research. He told VOA he is thrilled with the response it has received.

"But the recognition that I got afterwards, through talking to people, different scientists, that was when I really realized the importance of my study," said Olihile Sebolai.

Mr. Sebolai is equally delighted at the reaction among his family members who he says have supported him in his education and career goals.

"Oh, they are so excited for me," he said. "It is like they are the ones who really made this discovery and not me. So they are really happy for me, they are really very happy for me."

Mr. Sebolai is a modest, but confident young man, discernibly excited at the prospect that his discovery may have a long-term impact in the fields of science and medicine.

"Because really this could really revolutionize human medicine as we know it today," continued Olihile Sebolai. "So I am really grateful that one day I could be part of this."

The South African government has described the shortage of math and science graduates, particularly in the black community, as acute. Many educators have also expressed concern at the lack of interest among high school students in these fields. And Mr. Sebolai's achievements are rare, if not unique, in his South African peer group - making him potentially a much sought-after role model for his field of study.