Medicine in the Wild

on January 30 | in Featured | by

When Kayla Deur ’16 took her first trip out of the United States, she traveled about as far as she could go: to Cambodia, where she conducted research in three rural villages.

By Jean Holzinger M.A.L.S. ’11

Before she traveled to Cambodia last spring for her semester abroad, Kayla Deur ’16 had never been out of the country. “I figured as long as I was going to do it, why not do the biggest thing I can?” she said.

She also decided to go big with the research she conducted as a student with the School for Field Studies (SFS) Center for Mekong Studies. She explored the use of traditional medicine in three rural villages an hour away from the SFS center in Siem Reap, conducting 27 interviews and providing a detailed list of more than 100 plants used to treat everything from pre- and postnatal symptoms to stomach ache and diarrhea. She also took a close look at the ways in which knowledge about medicinal plants is transferred from one generation to the next. Her work was so exceptional that it received the SFS Distinguished Student Researcher Award. Deur’s SFS advisor, Lisa Arensen, called her paper “an impressive example of undergraduate research.”

Kayla Deur

Deur with her translator and research assistant, Hang Chansophea.

The award cites not only excellence and diligence in research, but also teamwork and leadership shown during the semester. For that, Deur credits her advisor and also her translator and research assistant, Hang Chansophea, a native Khmer who shared Deur’s interest in medicinal plants and helped pave the way for the interviews with the villagers. “We looked at what plants they used for medicine, who collects the plants, where they collect them, and what they use them for,” Deur said. All 27 people she and Hang interviewed could tell them about the plants they used for medicinal purposes. “Most people [in the region] use traditional botanical medicines often, and they are excited because they don’t get asked about them very much,” she said. “This made the interviews very personal and not so structured.”

Deur found that plant-based medicines play a much larger role in the community members’ daily lives than visits to modern medical facilities, which they see as expensive, too far away, and impersonal. In addition, village residents “have so many spiritual beliefs that go along with their health,” she said. “A lot are based on Chinese medicinal practices and their own indigenous beliefs, so going into these hospitals that they’re already skeptical of [becomes] a secular experience—something they don’t want.”

Kayla Deur

Boating through the Mekong Delta in the Tra Su Nature Reserve in An Giang Province in Vietnam.

Deur’s interviews showed that even in an age in which the younger people gravitate to urban areas, older practitioners are teaching the next generation about medicinal plants. According to her paper, 23 of the 27 respondents “stated that they learned about traditional medicine from their parents or grandparents, which implies that intergenerational transmission of knowledge is the most common mechanism in the study locations.” Her conclusion: “Knowledge about traditional medicine is not being lost and traditional medicine is still widely utilized in the three villages.”

SFS will share Deur’s research with the Center for Khmer Studies. In addition, she hopes it will serve as a foundation for new SFS scholars to build on. She would love to return to the country “and expand the research to other geographic regions.”

Deur taking photos of plants a couple had sent their grandchildren to collect at the start of the interview. Part of her research portfolio consisted of photographs of plants and prepared botanical medicines.

Deur taking photos of plants a couple had sent their grandchildren to collect at the start of the interview. Part of her research portfolio consisted of photographs of plants and prepared botanical medicines.

Deur, a native of Norton, Virginia, was thrilled to find a program that enabled her to combine her double majors in environmental studies and sociology. Her experience in Cambodia reinforced her interest in studying environmental law. “Some of my course work on the program involved speaking with NGOs about policy,” she said. “That was my first exposure to policy in the developing world. I’m interested in studying as much as I can about international and environmental law in the developing world because I noticed the gaps and miscommunications between what the people need” and what NGOs and the government recommend as policy.

“My environmental studies education has been nothing but exceptional here at Hollins,” she said, “but there are just some things that you can’t know and understand unless you’re there and you see people living it.”

Jean Holzinger is the editor of Hollins.

Illustration: Peter H. Raven/Missouri Botanical Garden, from Medizinal Pflanzen (1887).

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