College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

Business Intelligence Analyst, Dr Lindokuhle Ntombela.

PhD Graduate in Physics Advances Biomedical Research

‘I am immensely excited to be awarded my PhD in Physics. I had an amazing academic journey at UKZN,’ says Dr Lindokuhle Charles Ntombela.

The high achiever completed his BSc Honours degree summa cum laude and completed his MSc degree cum laude in 18 months!

He decided to continue his PhD journey at UKZN owing to the many interesting areas of physics research available.

Supervised by Professor Naven Chetty and co-supervised by Dr Oluwabamise Adeyele, Ntombela’s dissertation investigated the design and fabrication of tissue-like phantoms for use in biomedical imaging.

This involved studying laser light penetration and its probable effects through various biological tissues simulated by tissue-like materials.

‘Lindokuhle explored the potential of cheap and readily available slime materials as a primary medium for fabricating phantoms with reproducible, stable optical and mechanical properties as diseased and healthy biological tissue,’ said Chetty.  ‘The developed phantom tissues provide quick evaluation and standardisation of medical devices and procedures.

‘He has published two papers, with a third under review. Reviewers commented on the high quality of his work and its importance in biophysical applications.’

Ntombela explained: ‘Increasing diagnostic and therapeutic applications of laser light have necessitated the development and creation of phantom tissue to understand its propagation and the response of different tissues to the incident laser beams and to provide a better understanding of the laser choice for a specific application.

‘My research was strategically designed to investigate and develop a low-cost method to study laser propagation in the human brain, malignant brain tumours, lung carcinoma and post-menopausal uterus at a certain wavelength.’

Ntombela was drawn to this area of research as he had a passion for interdisciplinary research that offered an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of fundamental physics as applied to medical facilities and biological systems.

‘The effect of exposure to ultraviolet radiation of certain biological tissues is a relatively unexplored area,’ he said.  ‘It is only recently that researchers have begun to document the harm caused. The interaction of laser light with various biological tissues at classified wavelengths needs to be further explored, and this study was designed to address this issue.’

‘The use of phantoms in place of biological material is an effective alternative in initial tests of imaging devices and procedures since it is independent of the variables introduced by real subjects,’ he explained.

Ntombela aimed to understand laser light penetration as a function of optical properties such as index of refraction, scattering, absorption and anisotropy factor.

‘These optical properties determine the mechanism of laser tissue interaction in that special case, enabling the development of new biomedical diagnostic and therapeutic techniques,’ he said.

Ntombela believes that his PhD has taught him how to work in a structured way and overcome setbacks and has fostered problem-solving skills.  ‘I am looking forward to using these skill sets to do meaningful work in research-related tasks in industry,’ he said.

He thanked his supervisors, as well as Mr Mzungezi Mthembu of the discipline of Physics for providing accommodation in Pietermaritzburg when he needed it, and his family for their prayers, motivation and general support.

‘Lindokuhle did amazing work despite starting with a full-time job at a bank, midway through his PhD,’ said Chetty. ‘The fact that he is employed as a Business Intelligence Analyst by FNB, with a Physics degree, is testimony to the versatility of his Physics qualification.’

Words: Sally Frost

Photograph: Abhi Indrarajan