After a long day, I gather the last of my concentration and walk to the base of an isolated tree. It’s a cloudy night, so as I hug the trunk I rely on my bare feet to locate the notches that have been hacked into the bark. The tree is still slick from the evening’s rain, so I gingerly scramble up the trunk, climb between swaying branches, and haul myself over the railing of a tree house. As I lie down on the floor, my host, who has been waiting for me to return, eagerly asks, “Matthew, do plants photosynthesize at night?” Exhaustion forgotten, I spend the rest of the evening answering queries about science, politics, geography, history, and life in America.
As a PhD student living in Solomon Islands for ten months, every day is full of unexpected situations. The goal of my fieldwork is to find out how medicinal plant knowledge is affected by local plants and diseases, people’s interactions with these plants and diseases, and people’s interactions with each other. This work is important because it will help identify how people in any culture or environment select medicinal plants. It will also help scientists predict and respond to present and future environmental changes and health concerns. Science diplomacy allows me to overcome the two largest obstacles to my research: first, that I am an incredibly conspicuous foreigner; second, that I am asking questions about a very private topic.
To explore how people look at their surroundings and decide what plants to use for medicine, I’m comparing the medicinal plant knowledge of every adult in four subsistence villages, with some 40 to 130 adults in each village. Solomon Islands is a part of Melanesia, a group of island nations in the South Pacific that includes Fiji and Papua New Guinea. Getting from Honiara, the capital of Solomon Islands, to my study villages on Malaita Island requires two days of travel via boat, truck, and foot. Ninety-eight percent of Malaita residents are Melanesian, 2 percent are Polynesian, and fewer than 1 percent are of other ethnicities. Given the distance and demographics, some people in my study villages have never seen a white person or American before, let alone talked to one, and are initially afraid to interact with me in any way.
As a PhD student living in Solomon Islands for ten months, every day is full of unexpected situations.
Establishing common ground is essential to overcome this barrier. Much of the villagers’ fear is based on the assumption that my white skin means I must only speak English, so the most direct solution is to learn three local languages: Pijin, Mbaelelea, and Baegu. I learned Pijin last year, when I spent a month in Solomon Islands arranging my research permit, and learned the more complex languages of Mbaelelea and Baegu during this trip. Now, as soon as I arrive in a new area word quickly spreads that I am a white American who speaks local languages.
This reputation allows the villagers’ natural curiosity to take over, and they are then eager to ask me about who I am, what I’m doing, and how Americans live. This makes it easy for me to wander from house to house in my study villages, where I’m happy to explain the goal and process of my work.
The most common misconception that I face in both the United States and Solomon Islands is that I’ve come to test how well these plants fight disease and that I’ll be making new pharmaceuticals from plants. To combat this, I describe the true aim of my research, emphasize the anthropological aspects of my work, and explain that I’m a student who wants to teach about science and plants—not a drug company employee.
In Solomon Islands, pictures and stories of my family are very popular, and make an easy transition to my first interview, during which I ask questions about each resident’s life history, social interactions, and ecological interactions. For example: What languages do you speak? Do you ever go to a health clinic? How far away is your garden?
Although learning local languages helps me to be understandable, true cross-cultural communication requires that I know the history and traditions of Malaita. For example, all conversations and interviews begin with chewing betel nut and small talk. Once everyone’s mouths are stained red, I start the interview. As a second example, in Malaita medicinal plant knowledge is very carefully hidden from others—not only outsiders like myself but especially their own neighbors. Therefore, in my first round of interviews I focus on questions about my interviewee’s life; the only questions I ask about medicinal plants are if the interviewee knows of any and if they would be willing to show me these plants.
Being very open about the samples—as well as the rest of my work—shows that I have nothing to hide and gives me an opportunity to more fully share my work.
The next stage of my research, the plant walks, is a guaranteed adventure. Of course, each walk starts with chewing more betel nut as I explain how I’d like to collect plant samples and use GPS to mark their location. These topics always elicit questions and are a great way to further break the ice.
While walking, I learn about much more than just medicinal plants. People appreciate that I love trying different local foods, so we often collect wild fruits and vegetables along the way. I either tuck them into my plant collection sack or sample them on the spot. Once, as I was taking notes, my guide suddenly climbed a tree, grabbed the tail of a three-foot lizard, and whipped it against the trunk to break its neck. It too was tucked into my sack, and we started off again. After a walk is finished, I’ll typically be invited to stay and talk until dinner, where I get to sample everything that we harvested. In this way, I’ve eaten foods such as grubs, bats, grasshoppers, eels, and whole baby birds.
Plant walks can also lead us past caves, waterfalls, and taboo areas, which are usually associated with traditional stories. Sometimes these stories involve mythical figures such as the man-eating, flying giants that once lived in the caves. Other stories, such as those of important historical events or linking certain plants to the areas, provide valuable insights for my research. Following a day of plant collections, I typically label and press the plants on the porch of my host’s house. This reliably draws a crowd of curious onlookers, particularly children, who eagerly listen to me explain what I’m doing.
Collecting samples can make some people nervous that I could be stealing the plants to make medicine once I return to school. To ease such fears, I explain that these samples help me find the scientific name for each plant and show that I’m only taking a few leaves and flowers. I may test these plants at a later stage of my research, but to do so I’ll need to come back to collect larger samples from different plant parts. Being very open about the samples—as well as the rest of my work—shows that I have nothing to hide and gives me an opportunity to more fully share my work.
Villagers usually want to know why I’m making three identical samples of each plant, and are proud to hear that I’ll be sharing these duplicates to help scientists in three locations: Solomon Islands, Hawai‘i, and Washington, DC. For their part, the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa and the Smithsonian Institution are eager to expand their plant specimen collections from the Pacific and strengthen ties with Myknee Sirikolo, who manages the Solomon Islands National Herbarium. This collaboration has already generated plans to train staff from Solomon Islands to digitize their specimens so that any scientist with Internet access can see their unique collection.
Another part of my work that draws wide audiences is my plant diversity samples. To test whether easy-to-find plants are more likely to be used as medicine, I measure the diversity, number, and size of plants around each study village. These plots can be up to two kilometers from my study village, so I often meet people from other communities and explain who I am and what I’m working on. To help set up the plots and find the local names of these plants, I ask village friends to assist me. They’re often eager to give my equipment a try, which can make the work go much faster.
Many villagers on Malaita have high knowledge of the natural world that could greatly complement formal scientific training. However, most Solomon Islands schools lack laboratory facilities or basic equipment such as microscopes or even magnifying glasses. Additionally, most villagers have no exposure to scientists aside from anthropologists and perhaps hearing about other types of scientists doing research elsewhere on the island. These scientists are rare and tend to be transient, white, and ignorant of local languages and customs—and so they are hardly inspiring role models. The lack of science education and role models results in most students failing the national science examination and having no interest in scientific careers.
I’m grateful for this time because it allows me to continue building deep, trusting relationships.
Thus, one underlying goal of my fieldwork is to emphasize that traditions, local ecological knowledge, and schooling are not mutually exclusive. This goal is particularly important in my interactions with younger generations, who are often eager to attend school or get jobs in the capital or other countries, but recognize that doing this could mean forgetting their traditions and local ecological knowledge. For villagers who ask for career advice or want to practice English, I emphasize that my work and travel are the result of combining traditional knowledge and higher education.
Toward the end of my time in each village, I use group interviews to learn about how village life, particularly health, has changed over time. These conversations are a test of both my language and cultural knowledge. For example, I need to know the names of different evil spirits, and the animals or regions associated with them, to understand the illnesses they cause. To compare these health perspectives with a more biomedical philosophy, I also interview nurses at the nearest clinics, which are often three or more kilometers away and lacking even basic supplies such as pain medicine.
It takes several weeks to complete the first interview with the adults in each village, collect plants, measure biodiversity, and interview groups and nurses. I’m grateful for this time because it allows me to continue building deep, trusting relationships. One of the more formal ways I do this is by attending social events—and the feasts that accompany them—such as bride-buying ceremonies, graduations, and church celebrations. At these events, I continue to learn about Malaitan life and happily interact with people from outside my immediate study communities. However, my favorite celebrations are those where I give books to each of my study villages. I’m collaborating with Rotary International to distribute educational and story books of varied reading levels, which are virtually nonexistent in Malaitan schools. Speeches and feasts are nothing compared to delivering such materials, and seeing an entire community’s enthusiasm.
I give these books as a farewell gift, just before I move to my next study community. My departure means that the trust and mutual understanding I established with everyone in the community allowed me to complete my second personal interview with each resident. In these interviews, I show pictures of all the plants I’ve collected, ask which ones my interviewee uses for medicine, document details of their collection and preparation, and record how this knowledge was acquired. These are not trivial conversations—people are entrusting me with information they may not share with anyone else, including spouses or children, until they’re on their deathbed.
However, I’m not waiting until I leave, let alone my deathbed, to report my experiences in Solomon Islands. I share stories and pictures on both Twitter and my blog. To my fellow scientists: I challenge you to use your own work to promote the exchange of ideas, knowledge, and perspectives among people of all backgrounds. Combining science and diplomacy, through informal relationship building, can create unexpected breakthroughs for both your research goals and the world. Who knows, you might just move from your ivory tower to a treehouse.