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Friday, 11 January 2013 12:00

Prof. Ameenah Gurib-Fakim – Lady with a passion for plants

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Mrs Ameenah Gurib-Fakim is a woman who wears several hats: Besides being a wife and mother, she is also a writer, a researcher and a scientist. Winner of several awards such as L’Oreal-UNESCO Women in Science Award 2007 and the African Union Award for ‘Women in Science’ for the Easter African Region in 2009, Ameenah has a true passion for plants flowing in her veins.
“My love for plants - I owe it to my parents. My curiosity in the Sciences has been kindled by my school teachers to whom I am grateful and thankful. Much later my university lecturers taught me that there should be no compromise on hard work and always strive for excellence,” she said. Ameenah then pursued her tertiary studies in chemistry but later moved to natural product chemistry and medicinal plants after returning to Mauritius. “I am a Chemist by training. I did organic synthesis for my PhD in the UK. When I returned, I still wanted to do chemistry but was soon faced with hard facts – No infrastructure to do Synthetic work so I turned to Natural product chemistry. Initially I was extracting molecules from plant sources until I fell into the Medicinal plant pot… Have not come out since! I am still learning and discovering new things even, as you say, I have been working in this field for years.”

In 2011 Ameenah shifted from her work as lecturer at the University of Mauritius to dedicate herself to the research and development of the potential of medicinal plants at the Centre for Phytotherapy Research (CEPHYR). Phytotherapy is about the study of the use of extracts from natural origin as medicines or health-promoting agents. It is also now described as the study on the effects and clinical use of herbal medicines.

Mrs Fakim tells us about her work as Managing Director at The Centre for Phytotherapy Research (CEPHYR). “The Centre for Phytotherapy Research (CEPHYR) has been incorporated in Mauritius in 2009 but I only joined it in 2011 when I took leave from the University of Mauritius. As you are aware, I have been working on the theme of Medicinal Plant for many years. It is a very promising area and sought after by the pharmaceutical, neutraceutical, cosmetic sectors for development of new products. Moving to the private sector with the idea was a natural move. It meant translating my research into a business. Translational work is key.”

Mauritius has a unique biodiversity which many of us might be unaware of. Thanks to the implementation of ‘phytotherapy’ in Mauritius, research on the fauna and flora is taking a new turn. The centre for Phytotherapy Research (CEPHYR) indeed focuses its research on plants and their potential application in the field of cosmetic, nutrition and therapy. Our interviewee believes that “phytotherapy research is a must in Mauritius as we are blessed with a unique biodiversity and rich traditions. “The two factors combined have a multiplier effect that has kept me driven for so long!” However few people are concerned with the fact that plants are becoming endangered and that the percentage of natural forest in Mauritius has considerably decreased.

“The biodiversity of the Mascarenes and that of Madagascar is considered to be one of the 36 ‘biodiversity hotspots' at global level. The flora and fauna here are unique in the world. If you look at a distribution map of the vegetation in Mauritius in the early days of colonisation and now – you will see that we have less than 2% of the original forest cover. For the little left, we still do not have a complete picture as the Flora of the Mascarenes (publication on systematic botany of the Mascarene Islands) is still not complete! Fortunately serious efforts are being made both by Government and NGOs to protect what is left. In Madagascar, 82% of the flora is endemic and is under severe threat,” says Ameenah.

Besides sensitisation campaigns on the preservation of nature, should the culture of plant and forest conservation not start at school?  “This is an interesting question!” replies Mrs Fakim. “When I did the survey during the early 1990s to document traditional information, I noted that the people who were giving me reliable information were in the age bracket of 55-70! We were already talking about fast eroding knowledge. Yet this traditional knowledge is critical for future development in the field of medicine, for example. 60% of all medications sold in chemist shop come from Natural sources and 25% come directly from medicinal plants. Interestingly, now I note that the younger generation wants to be treated ‘naturally’.

Conservation of biodiversity as well as respect for traditional uses must be inculcated in our children from a very early age. I do not think that we will say enough on the need for protection and conservation of our local biodiversity.”

A talented scientist
As we know, since the beginning of times, woman scientists were persecuted and even considered as sorceress. Some were banned from doing their work and research while others less fortunate were executed. In fact, science was a male-dominated field. But with time, the iew of men on women scientists has greatly changed in a positive way. Ameenah agrees that “women have not had it easy especially in the sciences” but she trusts that some were given their due recognition.

“We have iconic figures like Marie Curie who has had not one but two Nobel Prizes! Slowly but surely women are making their mark. Education for girls has greatly contributed to this and statistics now reveal a greater number of girls taking science subjects but we still have a few challenges in terms of career progression – we lose many of them along the way. I personally think that giving family support to young researchers for example, will greatly help maintain them in their career path. Many good women scientists are ‘lost’ when they are faced with choices between family and career.”

Women and science were also words that were not associated at all but for Mrs Gurib-Fakim women and science are two words which have always been linked.  “Believe it or not, as a woman we do science everyday! When we cook an egg we are witnessing the denaturation of proteins, when we wash our clothes, we see chemistry in action! I have chosen Science as it answered the many questions that I used to ask when I was younger.”

Though being a career woman and mother of two, Mrs Gurib-Fakim has learnt how to strike a balance in her life. “I was lucky to have been able to be both a mother and have a career at the same time. I had family support and I involved my children in everything I did. Also, I never looked down upon work. I work whenever I have time.”
The Professor strongly encourages other women to join the science field. “There is NO doubt in my mind that more women need to embrace Science. Science is fun and rational at the same time. I would say that I have been lucky to have had good teachers who demystified science and have helped me question the status quo!” She advises women to “enjoy motherhood as there is no better gift than to be blessed with children” and youngsters to “do what you enjoy most and make your job become your hobby… as I have done! If you are passionate about what you do, every day is bliss!”
Jameela Jaddoo

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