Ameenah Gurib-Fakim’s love of science started early in life, influenced by dynamic teachers who mentored her in high school. She has spoken about how they showed her that science could provide answers to everyday questions, even about cooking and washing clothes. They were able to explain why the sky was blue, why plants were green and why sometimes they weren’t. One of the major historical events of her generation, and there have been many, was the birth of Louise Brown, the first “test tube baby” in 1978. This was when Ameenah Gurib-Fakim realized that science can really change your life.
Having chosen chemistry as her field of study, Ameenah Gurib-Fakim went into exile in England and received her bachelor’s at the University of Surrey in 1983 and a PhD in Organic Chemistry from the University of Exeter in 1987. When she returned to Mauritius as a lecturer in Organic Chemistry at the University, she wanted to continue in this discipline, but was faced with the many practical difficulties of doing this type of research in a developing country. So she turned to phytochemistry and the isolation of natural compounds from plants, as it was another way to understand organic chemistry. In fact, she still holds the Chair of Organic Chemistry at the University of Mauritius. She also managed Research and Development at the Mauritius Research Council, and at the University of Mauritius she was Dean of the Faculty of Sciences and later Pro-Vice Chancellor.
With her knowledge of botany, she turned increasingly to ethnopharmacology. This science concerns the interdisciplinary scientific study of all materials of animal or mineral origin, and the related knowledge and practices that local cultures implement for therapeutic, curative, preventive, or diagnostic uses. This approach has yielded many results. One example is the discovery of salicylic acid by Fontana in 1825 from the white willow bark traditionally used— since the Greeks!—to cure fevers, and more recently in 1971 the discovery of artemisinin, a powerful antimalarial derived from the sweet wormwood plant, and which has been used in traditional Chinese pharmacopoeia since the beginning of our era.
In 1994, Ameenah Gurib-Fakim completed the first inventory of aromatic and medicinal plants native to the Mauritius and Rodrigues Islands. It was no small task, when you know that Mauritius is an important biodiversity resource. Indeed, of the 634 plants identified at that time, 15 percent are endemic, that is to say, they are found only on this island. In this study, Ameenah Gurib-Fakim also examined the properties of these plants, which had never been done. In addition to conventional sampling, she did not hesitate to go to the villages to collect traditional knowledge, despite the reluctance of healers who are often not inclined to share their knowledge with the uninitiated. Since that time, she has been particularly committed to promoting the use of African medicinal plants that can be used to replace conventional—and expensive—medications sold in pharmacies. But the use of these medications in poor countries is to the profit of large international pharmaceutical companies, and there is a lack of effective legal framework to protect such intellectual property. In 2005, she was one of the founders of AAMPS, an African organization that brings together researchers, manufacturers, exporters and herbalists to develop and commercialize remedies based on African medicinal plants in accordance with international standards.
Her research led to her co-authoring more than twenty books and nearly 80 publications in the field, as well as being co- editor of several volumes, such as the volume Herbal Medicines in the series called PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa), in collaboration with the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands, and most recently, the first African pharmacopoeia published in 2010.
During her career, she has led numerous projects supported by international agencies such as the United Nations, the European Union and the Canadian Development Agency. She is an advisor to the International Science Foundation of Sweden and member of the Scientific Committee of the International Program in Chemical Sciences, at the University of Uppsala. She is an expert consultant for Infectious Diseases, a special program of the UNICEF/UNDP/World Bank/WHO. She founded the CEPHYR, the Herbal Center for Research and Development, based in Mauritius and its partner laboratory Elabio in Paris. This center is dedicated to the establishment of biochemical and physicochemical profiles of plant extracts, as well as the isolation and characterization of active molecules and clinical trials in the pharmaceutical and cosmetic fields.
Member of the Linnaean Society of London, the African and Islamic World Academy of Science of Jordan and the African Science Institute of the United States, she was awarded the L’Oréal-UNESCO Women in Science in 2007, the Bank One Ltd Emma Award in 2008 and the Economic and Social Council of Mauritius award. She also won the Women in Science of the African Union in 2009. These numerous international awards confirm Professor Gurib- Fakim as a successful example for young researchers in developing countries.
She was appointed Commander of the Order Star and Key of the Indian Ocean, the highest distinction of Mauritius in 2008 and became a Knight of the Order of Academic Palms in 2009.She is currently the 6th president of Mauritius and the first ever female president of the country.
Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, an exceptional scientist who has given a local dimension to her world class, innovative research and who bears the banner high and far for women invested in science, particularly in developing countries. We love that she is paving the way for young women in Africa and is such an inspiration.