Dr Esmé Louw was born in the Langkloof but grew up in sugarcane country in Empangeni. She went to Tuks where she majored in microbiology and biochemistry. “I’ve always had a love for animals,” says Louw. “I went to the zoology department and did an honours degree looking at the social behaviour of giant Zambian mole-rats.”
From mole-rats Louw moved on to a master’s degree in reproduction of elephants. She worked on the elephant’s closest living relative, the rock hyrax, better known as the dassie. After graduating she joined Murex Biotech where she supervised the development and commercialisation of testing kits for hepatitis C.
The new millennium saw Louw relocating to the Western Cape. She was employed in tuberculosis research at Stellenbosch University when an advertisement for a doctorate in horticulture caught her eye. She applied and began research on the aroma volatile profile of plums.
Louw explains that pivoting to horticulture was driven by a need to make a difference. “I felt that in the medical field, you don’t make an immediate difference. When you’re in the research side, it’s the beginning of a chain of events that takes years before the benefits are tangible. With horticulture, we discover something this season and the next season we act on it. You’re so much closer to the solution and to helping.”
After completing her doctorate, Louw eventually joined the Department of Horticultural Sciences at Stellenbosch University where she has been focussing on dormancy research for the past eight years.
Louw recalls that she used to consider animals superior to plants, but horticulture has changed her mind. “Plants can’t run away from their problems. They have to deal with every single one of them in order to survive. We should really give them the attention they deserve because they have had to come up with more creative solutions than animals.”
Image by Peartree Photography.