Career of the Month

By Sullivan, Megan | The Science Teacher, July 2007 | Go to article overview

Career of the Month


Sullivan, Megan, The Science Teacher


Ethnobotanist

According to Plant Talk (2007), approximately 270,000 species of plants exist on Earth. The number of known species--including trees, flowers, fruits, and herbs--increases almost daily as scientists make new discoveries. From indigenous cultures in Australia to urban communities in the United States, and everywhere in between, plants are used in clothing, medicine, furniture, food, and symbolic and spiritual rituals. Ethnobotanists, such as Maria Fadiman, study this relationship between people (ethno) and plants (botany). In the rain forests of Latin America and African Savannas, home to hundreds of thousands of plant species, Fadiman works to help people and plants live in harmony.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

How did you choose this field?

I had always wanted to do conservation work, but I was initially intimidated by science and studied Latin American literature as an undergraduate. Then, during my junior year of college, I was introduced to the rain forest as an ecotourist station volunteer. After my initial fright of spiders, snakes, and scorpions I was dazzled by the green leaves, parrots, monkeys, and waterfalls. I realized that all the fascinating elements around me involved biology, botany, ecology, zoology, and hydrology. How could I not be interested in science after that insight? And, as I learned about the ecosystem, I realized that the people who were teaching me about the rain forest were also a part of it. So, in order to truly be a conservationist, I needed to look at the whole picture, which includes people.

Describe your work.

In cultures all over the world, plants have myriad applications in food (vegetables and fruits), medicine (herbal remedies), clothing (cotton), furniture (wood), symbolism (pumpkins on Halloween), and spirituality (evergreens on Christmas). Working in the rain forests of Latin America and African Savannas, I focus primarily on sustainability of plant resources.

To do this, I begin by interviewing indigenous peoples. I talk with healers, specialists, and interested villagers to understand how they gather and use plants. For instance, is a tree used for its bark, leaves, or fruit? Is the bark used for shelter or medicine? Villagers' practices may vary. When I learn of a plant resource collected and used in a sustainable way, I share that information with other villagers to encourage the approach. For example, I worked with one group that cut down palm leaves for weaving with a special tool, which left the tree standing, while a different group cut down the entire tree for the same palm leaves. I conveyed knowledge about the former method to the latter group, providing an opportunity for more people to practice the sustainable technique.

Throughout my studies, I develop written records of the plant knowledge I gather. The records allow information, often lost through acculturation, to be accessed by future generations of indigenous peoples.

A typical day?

A typical day starts with the roosters beginning to call, long before the sun is up. I crawl out of my mosquito net, put on my rubber boots, and slip and slide down the muddy hill to the river where I brush my teeth. …

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