About the Scientist

Fatimah Jackson is an African American biologist and anthropologist. She studies common African plants that have remarkable uses as food and medicine. Her work takes her to many African countries and to local foods such as cassava, which guards against outbreaks of malaria. She takes samples of these foods back to the lab and investigates their chemical makeup to learn how they work their magic.

Fatimah Jackson

Biography of Fatimah Jackson

Find out more about Fatimah on the African Plant Explorer CD-ROM. The complete biography is 12 pages and includes a glossary.


When you eat French fries, you probably don't think

anything about them other than that they look good, smell good and taste good. When Fatimah Jackson eats French fries, she enjoys them, but she also thinks about the chemicals that potatoes naturally contain, and wonders what effect they may be having on her body.

"Plants are storehouses of chemical weapons," says Fatimah, a biologist and anthropologist at the University of Maryland at College Park who studies how plants and people affect one another. She's not talking about chemicals that are sometimes sprayed onto plants. The ones she studies are "just the God-given chemicals in the plants. One thing about plants is that they can't run very fast," Fatimah says with a wide smile. "They can't even run at all. So what they have developed are chemicals to draw insects and humans and animals that would help them survive toward them or to keep other animals away from them. So, the chemicals that keep you away are called repellents and the chemicals that draw you toward the plant are called attractants."


Before fruits and vegetables ripen, they are often green and bitter. These are signals to stay away from them. Not only will they taste bad, at that stage, the fruits or vegetables contain chemicals called repellents that are harmful to eat. Repellents are nature's way of getting you to leave the plant alone until it is ready to be eaten.

And, Fatimah points out, the appearance and the taste also protect the plant until it is ready to have you assist in its survival. "It needs to be picked in order to disperse its seeds, but it doesn't want to have its seeds dispersed before they are really mature. So, the fruit on the outside, the soft flesh, is really a mechanism to get the seed scattered all over the place to produce more trees or bushes to produce more fruit," she explains.

(excerpted from the biography written by Mary Knudson, and the entire biography is available on the African Plant Explorer CD-ROM.)


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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 9909496.
Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and
do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation (NSF).