I have an MSc in Ethnobotany, which is a hybrid degree in Anthropology (the study of human culture) and Botany (the study of plants). I have always been fascinated by the endless ways that plants are incorporated into every day life, and mostly their medicinal uses. I read The Shaman’s Apprentice before I went for my Master’s and I dreamt of roaming jungle forests with indigenous tribal leaders, in search of native plants with untold healing properties. In fact, I wrote to the author of the book, Mark Plotkin, and told him that I wanted to come work for him after completing my studies. Amazingly, he actually wrote back (these were the days before email was so prevalent)! But he said, alas, that he was disbanding his start-up company, Shaman Pharmaceuticals, because the competition was too stiff. Score another 1 for Big Pharma.
Work for a modern Western ethnobotanist is slim-to-none. Today’s approach, and rightly so, is to train people from their own country (whether Bhutan, Brazil or Bosnia) in botany, and in indigenous languages (if needed) so that they can be ethnobotanists of their own culture. Not for someone like me, to live out a fantasy. And that’s the way it should be.
So after my Master’s I found myself working at the National Academy of Sciences, where I oversaw the inner workings of scientific policy being put in place. I sat at the same table as representatives from Harvard, Cornell, USDA, and Monsanto. Well actually, I sat at the table behind them. Taking notes. Physically. And mentally. (Score 1/2 a point for the little guy ).
That’s where I decided that I wanted to go on for a PhD. I wanted to be one of the influencers AT the table. So I applied for a PhD to the same school where I got my MSc, and got accepted. I was going to study the health effects of GMOs, inspired by a research paper I had done on the Green Revolution (and maybe an up close and personal experience with a Monsanto exec). But there was only one problem: I didn’t have any money. So I deferred returning to school for another year, until I could find a scholarship or some grant money.
And then life happened. My boyfriend proposed, and I said yes. A decision I never regretted, because he is the love of my life. We traveled the world, and eventually moved to the Philippines, where I volunteered my time working with local people on sustainable farming practices in hopes of regenerating lost tropical forest. While he worked with local fishers on sustainable fishing practices. After we moved back to the States, I worked at a couple of botanical gardens. And one of my dreams nearly did come true. I did get to roam the wild interior forests of Jamaica looking for indigenous and threatened plants, on a National Geographic funded expedition. They weren’t medicinal plants (as far as we know). But close enough.
Then I had a baby. And another. And the hopes of pursuing a PhD faded. But all along, I blogged about diet and nutrition, as I was dealing with health issues that no conventional doctor seemed to be able to solve. As I slowly unraveled the true science behind gluten, grains, celiac disease and gluten sensitivity, I also learned even more about the influences of Big Food, Big Pharma and Big Medicine on the health of our society as a whole. And so it turns out that maybe I am the modern ethnobotanist: not exploring the plants of the wild, but exploring how removed we have become from the wild, and how that has adversely affected our health in so many ways. Maybe I won’t be one of the big boys at the deciding table of public policy, but I still hope to be an influencer that empowers the “little guy.”