The Explorers

From Tanzania to Uzbekistan, from Ecuador to Bhutan, professor Ilya Raskin and graduate students from his lab are fanning out across the globe in a decidedly 21st-century mix of exploration, science, and world citizenship.

They’re searching for plants.

  • Bhutan
    The Benefits of Biodiversity

    The government of Bhutan is typically wary of foreign involvement, but GIBEX has been able to conduct scientific training programs and other excursions in the country—one of the first efforts of its kind in this mountainous nation between China and India. Raskin (far left) accompanied a group traveling in Bhutan.

  • Tanzania
    The Benefits of Biodiversity

    To help other countries learn about the health benefits of their native plants, GIBEX has developed a relatively inexpensive toolkit for testing plants. The first step? Grinding plants with an inexpensive grinder available at any hardware store. Here, researchers in Tanzania, from the University of Dar es Salaam, pulverize plants they’ve gathered on a field trip in the jungle.

  • Kenya
    The Benefits of Biodiversity

    Scientists from Kenya and Nairobi gather with Rutgers researchers to learn about portable scientific assays (essentially quick tests of a plant’s therapeutic properties) that are designed for use in the field. With this approach, GIBEX aims to eliminate the need for taking biological materials out of the countries where the samples are found.

  • Ecuador
    The Benefits of Biodiversity

    Graduate students from Rutgers and North Carolina State—a partner in GIBEX—conducted a training program at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito in Ecuador. Local villagers, shown here with GIBEX researchers and Ecuadorian scientists, identified plants from the Ecuadorian rainforest as having medicinal properties. The group displays plants that were collected on an excursion.

  • North Dakota
    The Benefits of Biodiversity

    Rutgers researchers work with Native American populations to help them identify the scientific properties that give certain plants medicinal value, such as bergamot—a plant traditionally used for the treatment of infections. Here Brittany Graf, a Ph.D. student in plant biology, assists a Lakota tribal elder, Butch Thunderhawk, at the United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, North Dakota.

  • North Dakota
    The Benefits of Biodiversity

    GIBEX training is collaborative, bringing together people from disparate cultural, economic, and scientific backgrounds. A training at the United Tribes Technical College in North Dakota involves professors, graduate students, and tribal leaders.

  • Yellowstone
    The Benefits of Biodiversity

    Scientists and government representatives from three countries—Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan—participated in a GIBEX workshop held at Yellowstone National Park. Funded in part by the U.S. State Department, the weeklong workshop included seminars with Yellowstone officials and ranchers about how to run conservation programs and protect natural resources.

  • Bhutan
    1/7
  • Tanzania
    2/7
  • Kenya
    3/7
  • Ecuador
    4/7
  • North Dakota
    5/7
  • North Dakota
    6/7
  • Yellowstone
    7/7

Through the Rutgers-based Global Institute for BioExploration (or GIBEX), Raskin and his colleagues are seeking to help countries around the world—in particular, those with developing economies—learn how to harness the power of plants for human health. Rather than just grabbing samples for research and drug development back in the United States, Raskin and a team of graduate students work with traditional healers, academic researchers, and scientists in far-off lands to collect, document, extract, and uncover the health-improving properties of everything from nut oils to wild berries.

IN SEARCH OF PLANTS

By providing training and equipment, GIBEX makes it possible for university-based scientists in other countries, as well as in Native American communities, to explore their own botanical diversity and identify the chemical compounds responsible for the health benefits of native plants, from bergamot leaves (thought to have antibacterial properties by the Lakota) to quinoa (viewed by Ecuadorians and others as beneficial for stamina and endurance). Those discoveries can then be used for the potential development of drugs, dietary supplements, and food additives.

It’s all part of Raskin’s philosophy of empowering developing nations to make the most of their plant biodiversity—without exploitation or what’s sometimes been labeled as “biopiracy.”

“A significant amount of plant biodiversity is outside the United States,” notes Raskin, a professor in the Department of Plant Biology and Pathology in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences and the president of GIBEX. “Now those nations have the ownership, they have the discovery, and they have the patents.” And, Raskin adds, researchers from abroad will often partner with U.S. companies to commercialize their discoveries.

“There’s a tremendous demand for what we do, and we do it on a shoestring,” says Raskin, noting that GIBEX receives funding from charitable foundations and countries where GIBEX conducts workshops. But, he adds, “Funding has been limited.”

COLLABORATION AND RESEARCH

Rutgers graduate students play a key role in traveling to other countries to train scientists, using a special toolkit developed by GIBEX consisting of inexpensive materials, such as X-ray film, baker’s yeast, and an off-the-shelf, jerry-rigged grinding tool. For the graduate students, it’s a chance to broaden their view of the world, meet scientists from other cultures, and engage in original research. The experience can be a vastly enriching one, as Rutgers students meet researchers at universities outside the United States, as well as local leaders and traditional healers. “It makes them citizens of the world,” notes Raskin.

Brittany Graf, a Ph.D. candidate in plant biology, has led GIBEX training workshops in Bhutan, Kenya, and Namibia, as well as in Alaska and North Dakota. The workshops give her a sense of “the cultural values that shape the nature of scientific research” around the world, she says, and provide inspiration for her graduate work at Rutgers.

Rocky Graziose, a Ph.D candidate studying the antimalarial properties of traditional plants, traveled to Namibia to conduct GIBEX training. “The training was a great experience,” he says. “It allowed me to make strong collaborative connections with scientists that I wouldn’t have met otherwise. It also opened my eyes to the type of advanced research that’s possible in a developing country.”