Chemist Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, 2007 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Laureate, was the first woman to be appointed president in the history of the Mauritius Islands.
In 2014, researcher Ameenah Gurib-Fakin became internationally known after delivering a talk at TED about the importance of preservation of the Mauritius Islands, a nation located on the Southeast of Africa and the place where the scientist was born. Gurib-Fakim was the first scientist to do the complete mapping of the country’s medicinal and aromatic plants and was one of the five researchers selected to receive the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Awards in 2007. Last year, she became the first woman to be appointed president in the history of the Mauritius Islands. Cristine Kist from GALILEU magazine talked to the scientist to understand how her academic background will contribute to her administration.
YOU CHOSE TWO CAREERS THAT ARE NOT EXACTLY COMMON: A SCIENTIST AND A PRESIDENT. WHEN YOU WERE STILL A LITTLE GIRL AND PEOPLE ASKED YOU WHAT WOULD YOU WANT TO BE WHEN YOU GREW UP, WHAT DID YOU ANSWER?
I grew up in a village that was close to the airport. People frequently asked me what I expected from the future – and I used to say that would like to be a stewardess! I was fascinated by travelling by airplane and getting to know the world. Which I only started doing when I was much older!
WHEN DID YOU DECIDE TO ENTER INTO POLITICS?
I did not choose to participate in a presidential campaign. Rather, I was chosen by politics: I had delivered a talk at TED and soon after that the media started speculating about the possibility that I run for presidency. I was contacted by a political party and we soon had a landslide victory. I am a scientist and I never thought about having a political career. I think that the party wanted a new face, someone who was not part of the political scenario, but someone internationally known, who was also a woman and a Muslim (Islam is a minority religion at the Mauritius Islands).
HOW WERE THE FIRST MONTHS IN THE PRESIDENCY? WHAT ARE THE MAIN CHALLENGES AT THE MAURITIUS ISLANDS?
I would say that my life has completely changed now; I have practically a feeling of nostalgia about the time when I could live with more freedom. But the Mauritius Islands are like any other country that needs to improve its economic performance: courageous decisions must be made so that the economy can diversity itself and create more jobs, especially among the younger sections of the population. Being a very distant island can be a challenge, but I think that this also converts itself into opportunities.
NOW THAT YOU ARE PRESIDENT, IS THERE STILL TIME TO WORK ON SCIENTIFIC PROJECTS?
My time is consumed by the presidency, but I still continue to contribute in various ways to strengthen science, also by creating specific policies and by bringing certain topics to the spotlight of discussions. But I strongly believe that science, technology and innovation are the tools to create wealth and opportunities, and I will use my position to ensure the creation of a favorable environment for this to happen.
IN BRAZIL, WE HAVE A SERIOUS PROBLEM WITH DEFORESTATION IN THE AMAZON. WHAT ARE THE CONSEQUENCES OF THIS TO SCIENCE?
The vegetation coverage needs to be protected, especially in forests such as the Amazon, which are the lungs of the world and rich in biodiversity, regions humanity depends on for the survival of the planet.
TODAY WE STILL DO NOT HAVE MANY WOMEN SCIENTISTS, AND EVEN LESS WOMEN PRESIDENTS. DO YOU CONSIDER YOURSELF A FEMINIST?
If my position as a scientist and a president can serve to the cause and encourage other women to follow these paths, then yes, I am a feminist!