Biodiversity researcher becomes first female president of Mauritius

Biodiversity scientist Ameenah Gurib-Fakim has dedicated her career to studying the plants of her home, Mauritius, a tiny island nation that lies off the east coast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. A synthetic organic chemist by training, she returned to Mauritius in 1987 after completing her bachelor’s degree and Ph.D. in England, shifting her focus toward investigating the natural chemical compounds of the island’s myriad plants and their potential medicinal properties. Now, 25 years into a successful research career—which has included stints as dean and pro vice chancellor at the University of Mauritius, acting as the managing director of a contract research organization, winning the 2007 L’Oréal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science for Africa, and giving a TED talk in 2014—Gurib-Fakim has a new item to add to her resume: president of Mauritius.

She was recruited for the job, she explained to the TED Blog, even though she never had any plans to go into politics. The parliament appointed her to the role, which is largely ceremonial—the prime minister is the head of the government—on 5 June, after the standing president stepped down at the end of May. She is the country’s first female president.

I’ve gone through the glass ceiling, and that’s an important message to send to young women and girls. … ‘Yes, it’s possible if you are a woman.’

Her priorities in her new role reflect her scientific background. “I want to drive think-tanks on science and technology,” she told the TED Blog. “Another area I want to focus is on the environment. Climate change is a big concern for us — it can be felt in terms of the seasons, and we’re seeing very strong, violent storms. A strong voice needs to be heard. Sustainable development has everything to do with our identity of being Mauritian and of being a biodiversity hotspot.”

To be successful, though, she thinks she may need to practice some skills beyond those she honed as a researcher. “I’m a scientist, so I’m used to saying things as I see them. As president, [I] need to be much more diplomatic.”

Education, and gender issues, will likely be another focus of her service. In particular, Gurib-Fakim hopes that her career as a researcher, and now as president, will inspire girls who are interested in science to pursue their dreams. “I’ve gone through the glass ceiling, and that’s an important message to send to young women and girls. … ‘Yes, it’s possible if you are a woman.’”

Gurib-Fakim is one of just a few Mauritian women of her time who had the opportunity to study science—or anything at all, for that matter. “In Mauritius, we live in a very patriarchal society. I was lucky when I was a young girl, because my father had no objection to his daughter getting an education. … [T]his was not the case for many girls,” she told the TED Blog. These days, Mauritian girls have “more access to schools,” but additional work still needs to be done to help them pursue the careers they want, she says. “A lot of girls come in to the schools, but by the time we look out the other side of the tube, there’s hardly any left. We need to see how this can be capped.”

Regardless of gender, Gurib-Fakim’s advice for younger researchers working to establish their careers in science, offered in a 2013 interview with Pierre and Marie Curie University, is to do what makes you happy. “Give the best of yourself and enjoy what you do because if you are passionate about what you do, it will seem like you will never have to work a day in your life.”

You can watch her TED Talk here:

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