I attended Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York.
I was a biology major and was planning on going to veterinary
school. I had worked all
through high school in a veterinary hospital, but by my sophomore year
at Hartwick I realized I didn’t enjoy the laboratory aspects of my
studies. Dr. Robert Smith
was the Chair of the Biology Department, and he became a mentor to me.
He was a plant taxonomist, and I took classes from him and did
some special projects, and that’s where my keen interest in plants
developed. My goal became
to conduct tropical forestry research.
I looked for a graduate program in forestry.
I knew I wanted to come out west and I also wanted to
incorporate a stint in the Peace Corps with my Master’s degree
program. There were only
a very few universities that were involved in the Peace Corps program,
and Washington State University (WSU) was one of these.
I applied to WSU and several other programs, but when I talked
to Linda Hardesty [Associate Professor of Range Ecology at Washington
State University], I found her so personable and encouraging that I
was immediately swayed to attend WSU.
I wanted to use the Peace Corps as a way to get
overseas and get some field research done in tropical forestry.
Although I was more focussed and pragmatic than many
“starry-eyed Peace Corps volunteers,” the Peace Corps ended up
being a great program for me in many ways.
I stayed in my program for almost four years, well beyond the
required two-year stint.
I was overseas from August 1994 until July 1998.
I spent three of those years in a village in the Tamboro area
in Madagascar, near Ranomofana National Park, and spent the final year
in a small city working on several urban environmental projects with
groups that were established there.
In that last year in the city I was working on my floristic
inventory, and I could always go back out to the countryside near the
village where I had conducted my field research, and double check
something if I needed to.
The people in the village speak Malagasy, and
that’s the language I used to conduct interviews for my research.
In the city, both Malagasy and French were spoken.
I speak both languages now, but I did not before I went to
Madagascar. I studied
French in high school and for a year in college but there’s no
comparison to being immersed in a culture where you have to learn the
language and use it, or else! And
so, I truly learned French in Madagascar, as well as learning
When I returned to the U.S. from Madagascar, I took a
year to finish my Master’s program at Washington State University.
I received that degree in 1999, and immediately plunged into a
doctoral program at WSU the same year.
I’ve spent the past two years working on my Ph.D.
My field work has been completed during two more trips to
Madagascar. On my final
trip, begun in December 2001, I led a group of undergraduate students
from Hartwick College. That
trip did not end as planned, due to political unrest in the country.
All the students eventually returned home safely, even though
their trip lasted more than a month longer than anyone planned.
Hartwick College sends students abroad to many places
around the world as part of their undergraduate education.
The students enroll in a course and receive credit for their
travels, their experiences, and projects they work on while overseas.
I arranged with the Biology Department to help offer a course
in Rainforest Ecology and Natural History of Madagascar.
I worked with Dr. Alan Crooker of Hartwick College to take 25
students for four weeks. My
husband, Dinesh Badouraly, came along and assisted with the trip, too.
I met Dinesh in Madagascar when I was there with the Peace
Corps, and we married shortly after he and I came to the U.S. in 1998.
The plan was for our student group to tour some
national parks and other reserves and study the plants and animals of
Madagascar, which is home to some of the most unique species in the
world. The course
explored ecology, natural history, ethnobotany, entomology, and marine
science. One focus was on development and conservation, and how these
are interlinked with the local populations.
We started by spending about a week in the southeast part of
the country, visiting some parks and the offices of the Worldwide Fund
for Nature to talk with staff members.
We then visited the village where I worked in the Peace Corps.
After that, we traveled to Tuleare, on the other side of the
Madagascar is evergreen, montane rainforest and Tuleare, in the
southwest, is more of a savannah forest.
We visited a national park and studied some marine biology
there. Then we traveled by bus to the capitol city, and so were able
to see the central portion of the southern part of the island, too,
which is high plateau. We
visited a number of eco-tourist sights in the capitol.
We didn’t travel to the northern part of Madagascar, but did
travel all over the south.
We provided instruction in field biology in our
course. At Hartwick
College, the Biology program focuses heavily on molecular, cellular,
and developmental biology. The
students don’t often get out into the field with their on-campus
courses, so we used lots of field techniques in our course in
Madagascar—field identification of plants; sampling, collecting and
mounting specimens; how to keep a field journal; and other techniques.
That’s the fun stuff, and it’s exactly what got me hooked
when I was an undergraduate student!
After the students left, I planned to finish my
doctoral research in a two-month period, then return home to WSU to
write up my dissertation. Unfortunately,
travel was very much curtailed in the country in January, after a
dispute over who won the presidential election led to near-civil war
in the country. Thousands
of people went on work strikes, and much of the country came to a
around the capitol city, which is a port, resulted in strangling the
flow of gasoline and fuels to other parts of the country, and it
became very difficult to drive vehicles or find busses or trains
running. Air travel was
limited, and then stopped. Our
student group eventually left Madagascar on a cruise ship and made it
to mainland Africa, where they found airline transportation home.
This emergency itinerary took weeks to plan and implement, and
required the help of the U.S. embassy.
The students arrived home safely, but it took an extra four
weeks to get them there! Meanwhile,
I did finish my fieldwork, and my husband and I were able to fly out
of Madagascar in March on one of the last planes to leave the country.
My doctoral research looks at the effects of cultural
evolution on the use of medicinal plants in Madagascar.
I’m interested in the effects of natural resource
conservation on the use of medicinal plants. I’ve used ethnobotanical research techniques in my
work—talking to people to see if knowledge is being passed down from
generation to generation. My
preliminary results suggest that some inter-generational passing of
knowledge is occurring, but it’s happening between the elders and
younger people who are in their 20s.
I did not find this knowledge base in older adults, and this
makes me think that perhaps a resurgence in interest in this knowledge
is occurring now, and that adults a generation ago (those that are now
in their 40s and 50s) were not interested in acquiring the knowledge
of medicinal plants. If
this resurgence of interest is happening, I would like to find out if
conservation of the habitats of these medicinal plants is also of new
Therefore, another part of my study was a survey of
habitats to find where these plants are located. Researchers in other tropical forest locales in Africa and
South America have found that some medicinal plants used by local
people are located right off the main trails in a given watershed. This might be because these plants inhabit disturbed areas,
or it might mean that these particular medicinal plants are just easy
to harvest, being so close to the trails.
In my study in Madagascar, I am interested in determining which
of these explanations is true, and so I sampled forest close to trails
and also sampled forest far from trails.
When I talked to some of the healers and elders, most
told me that they had never encountered problems with scarcity of
medicinal plants. They
also told me that they have many different plant species to use for
one illness. So, if one
plant disappears, they may have nine others to choose from.
This diversity, unfortunately, is not promising for
conservation. Also, if I
find that the people believe that it’s best to use western medicine
and forget about using the plants in the forest, then conserving that
forest habitat to continue to provide medicinal plants won’t be a
I believe that the people in the rural area of
Madagascar where I worked will come to a point where they do find that
reduced forest habitat is impacting their needs for many things,
including medicinal plants. They
rely on slash and burn agriculture, which profoundly impacts the
forest. They also take some trees and pole saplings for their own
use, but that is regulated because the area is a national forest.
There is no commercial harvest of trees for timber.
In 1995, the villagers agreed to limitations on where they
would place their crop fields in a plan that was facilitated by the
national forest service, but today, a mere six years later, those
limitations are no longer being honored.
This is simply because these people need to plant crops to feed
themselves. The land that
they used five years ago is degraded, and they must move on into the
forest. They are aware of
the impact that their use is having on their limited forest lands, but
they have no choice.
With my Master’s research in the area around the
same village, I looked at some agroforestry solutions to the dilemma
of degrading habitat with slash and burn agriculture. Unfortunately, such solutions may not be viable simply
because the people are so determined to keep on doing what they have
always done—and in this respect, the people of Madagascar are not so
very different from anybody on the planet, I think.
Change is not welcomed, because the outcome of a new method is
not proven; it’s not known. Experimenting
with new methods is a gamble, and the farmers and their families are
the ones who are going to go hungry if it doesn’t work.
With my doctoral research, my focus in my first field
season early in 2001 was on three things; interviews with people using
medicinal plants, botanical surveys in different habitats, and market
surveys. I followed up in
my second field season by focusing on a few specific plant species. I searched for them in the forest and sampled habitat
quadrants to see where they were located and what the population
density was like. I
talked to traditional healers about the uses of these plants, and
where this traditional knowledge came from originally.
I am very curious about the transfer of this knowledge between
generations and between healers.
I’d like to know what effect cultural knowledge and cultural
taboos have had on the use of these medicinal plants, or whether use
is simply impacted by the pharmacological effect of the plant on
illness. I have really
enjoyed this research. It’s
been like solving a big puzzle, one piece at a time.
I feel lucky that I’ve been able to pursue this
research, even without substantial institutional support. I have had a Teaching Assistantship at Washington State
University that helped provide support, but some of the fieldwork has
been paid for out of my own pocket.
The teaching assignment with Hartwick College helped
tremendously with finishing the research, as a large cost for this
work has been just getting over to Madagascar.
Airfare is expensive to that part of the world.
I have applied for grant support, but it’s highly competitive
because there are so many people working in ethnobotany.
The field is interdisciplinary, and so grant seekers compete
with others in botany, anthropology, natural resources, and other
I am now writing my dissertation, and hope to finish
program within the year. I
am interested in finding a post-doctoral program somewhere, because I
love research, and because my long-term professional goal is to find a
position at a university. I
love to teach, too. To be
competitive for professorial positions these days, I think it’s best
to have a post-doc on your resumé.
I think I found my professional focus during my first
stay in Madagascar. I
worked with several School for International Training students who
spent a semester in the country.
They would come find us Peace Corps volunteers and ask us,
“Do you have any projects that we can do?” because they needed to
complete an independent project for their program.
I had so much fun mentoring these students and helping them
with their projects, and that’s what really got me interested in
teaching. I look forward
to finding a position that will allow me to teach and to continue to
solve those puzzles—one piece at a time.