Jill M. Farrant

Jill Farrant wins major global award for her contribution to life sciences

theearthisround.co.za - Professor Jill Farrant of the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at UCT has become the third UCT woman scientist - and the fourth from South Africa - to win a L'Oréal-UNESCO Women in Science Award in Life Sciences.

Plant physiologist Professor Jill Farrant from the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at UCT has added another feather to her cap: the L'Oréal-UNESCO Women in Science Award in Life Sciences. On 8 November, she was named one of five women from around the world to win a 2012 L'Oréal-UNESCO Women in Science Award in Life Sciences.

It's the latest in a string of accolades for the National Research Foundation (NRF) A-rated researcher. Farrant's list of achievements include among others: the Harry Oppenheimer Memorial Trust Fellowship Award, the first woman in the life sciences at UCT to receive the NRF A-rating, recipient of the South African Distinguished Women in Science Award from the Department of Science & Technology, and she featured in the Mail & Guardian's Book of South African Women.

An international network of nearly 1 000 scientists nominates the candidates for each year's awards, which form part of the L'Oréal-UNESCO Women in Science Programme. The five Laureates are then selected by an independent, international jury presided over by Professor Günter Blobel, winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1999. "The work of the 2012 Award Laureates yielded remarkable insights into human health issues," Blobel said in a statement. "Their research is truly original, and each is among the best in five distinct regions of the world."

One winner is named for each of five regions. In Africa and the Arab States it was our Professor Farrant; in Asia/Pacific, Professor Ingrid Scheffer of the University of Melbourne, Australia; in Europe, Professor Frances Ashcroft of Oxford University, UK; in Latin America, Professor Susana López of the National University of Mexico; and in North America, Professor Bonnie Bassler of Princeton University in the US. These top level scientists are at the forefront of their research encompassing diverse areas in the Life Sciences (plants, epilepsy, diabetes, rotaviruses and bacteria).

The women are singled out for the major impact their research can have on society.

Professor Farrant, is renowned for her multi-dimensional research on resurrection or desiccation-tolerant plants, which are able to withstand prolonged drought or water loss - a looming climate change issue - but will spring to life once water arrives. Over the past years she has explored the roles that antioxidants and sucrose play in this Lazarus-like act, and is now trying to unpack the signalling pathways triggered by a group of lipids known as volatile organic compounds - and, in a recently published work, is attempting to get to grips with the genetic make-up of such plants.

It's work that could have a profound impact on the world, and as put by Professor Farrant, I believe in the potential outcomes of my work - i.e. the ultimate production of drought-tolerant crops, with the aim of addressing food security needs in Africa; which will become more important as climate change (increasing drought) continues to impact on agriculture."

Professor Farrant is quick to acknowledge the collaboration of students and attributes her success to team effort: "I have worked with amazing students and collaborators who have helped put me on this map," she says. "I might have initiated the research, and had many of the ideas that have been tested and published, but I alone did not do the work that has enabled me to receive such an award."

Previous UCT L'Oreal-UNESCO Women in Science Award laureates are Professor Valerie Mizrahi, now director of the Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine, in 2000; and Professor Jennifer Thomson, who also hails from Farrant's quarters in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, in 2004.

“"Professor Jill Farrant is a truly deserving laureate," said Professor Danie Visser, deputy vice-chancellor for research. "This is yet another reminder of the telling impact that women have at UCT, and as the award demonstrates, on the world." Farrant will receive her award and prize money, US$100 000, at a ceremony at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris in March 2012.

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