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13 APRIL 2012
Serious injury did not stop this feisty professor
by Suthentira Govender

When Professor Jill Farrant sustained severe head injuries four years ago, resulting in short-term memory loss, no one ever imagined that she would one day scoop an international science award and R780 000 for her ground-breaking research.

The University of Cape Town academic, who slipped and banged her head in the bath tub, also lost her sense of smell and ability to taste.

Despite these setbacks, Farrant, 51, undertook vital research into the development of drought-resistant crops and was honoured earlier this month at the prestigious L'Oréal-Unesco Awards in Paris.

Four other scientists honoured for their research at the Unesco headquarters in the French capital were Australian paediatric neurologist Professor Ingrid Scheffer, British anatomy and genetics professor Frances Ashcroft, Mexican genetics and molecular physiology professor Susana Lopez, and American molecular biologist Bonnie Bassler.

Farrant said she still could not believe she was among the "distinguished" recipients of the prestigious award.

"I still don't believe it. There are a lot of other very deserving women out there. But what is important about this award is that it makes it clear that women can play an important role in helping society," she said.

Since 1998, according to the organisers, the L'Oréal-Unesco Award has recognised 64 laureates from 30 countries - two of whom have received the Nobel prize.

Farrant's research focused on resurrection plants, which revive themselves from a seemingly dead state - within 24 to 72 hours - when they are rehydrated. She discovered the plants when she was nine years old on her family's farm in Limpopo.

Farrant is now also investigating the ability of many plant species to survive without water for long periods of time in a bid to eventually develop drought-tolerant crops in arid parts of SA.

More than 750000 people are at risk of dying from drought-induced famine in east Africa this year, according to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation.

"I would love to find a solution to world problems like food security," said Farrant.

After her accident in 2008, doctors told her that the injury, which resulted in a severe swelling on her head, had brought her within an hour of death.

"They opened me up, relieved the bleeding and cut the nerve to the area where we have our sense of smell and taste. All they said to me was that I would never recover my sense of smell because they had to save my life," she said.

Farrant's biggest challenge was her memory loss.

But the feisty scientist refused to give up, constantly testing herself, watching television and reading newspapers.

Even today she has bouts of short-term memory loss, but has learnt to deal with it.

"When I can't remember something I just move on... I'm a survivor. It wasn't my time, clearly."
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