Environmental Factor, October 2010, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
Exploring the origins of American medicine
By Eddy Ball
NIH celebrated Hispanic heritage Sept. 21 with an engaging talk by Eloy Rodriguez, Ph.D., the James A. Perkins Professor in ethnobotanical medicine and biochemistry at Cornell University. The presentation, videocast from the NIH campus in Bethesda, Md., combined an historical review of natural medicines and medicinal foods in the New World with an appeal for overcoming health disparities with a health and science workforce that better represents the diversity of the American population.
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Rodriguez's audience included NIH employees and a contingent of students from nearby Wheaton High School in Silver Spring, Md. Since one of Rodriguez's themes was training the next generation of Hispanics to participate in a diverse scientific workforce, he addressed the young people in his audience directly several times during his lively and engaging presentation.
In the course of his talk, Rodriguez(http://www.plantbio.cornell.edu/cals/plbio/directory/faculty.cfm?netId=er30) appealed to young people with several photos of his undergraduate and graduate students and stories about their successful scientific careers. He also shared stories of his family - both the successes of his 64 cousins, and aunts and uncles, as well as the untimely deaths of family members from complications of diabetes.
Telling his listeners, “I get knowledge from the people,” Rodriquez took his audience back to the roots of American medicine among indigenous peoples, especially the herb-savvy women who were using plants and foods as medicine long before Columbus stumbled across the Americas. “The history of science goes way, way back, even before the coming of the Europeans,” he explained.
Pointing to such plants as Clitoria, a flower used to treat malaria, and Heliotropium, which supplies a juice used topically on breast tumors, Rodriguez praised the vast healing knowledge of so-called primitive peoples in South and Central America. He also described the healing qualities of indigenous foods, such as chili and mole, as well as the way that Europeans and African slaves contributed to the creation of a diverse medicine in the New World.
In the final part of his talk, Rodriguez turned to the topics of health disparities and workplace diversity. “Am I outraged?” he asked rhetorically. “Of course, I'm outraged. We cannot afford to let these health disparities persist.” He pointed to the 2.9 percent of the NIH workforce that is Hispanic - at a time when Hispanics represent 16 percent of the American population - and the absence of Hispanics among senior scientists. He said simply, but dramatically, “This can't be.”
NIH Hispanic Employment Program Manager Gerard Roman, who is based at NIEHS, introduced the program on behalf of the NIH Hispanic Employment Committee and NIH Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity Management (OEODM). NIH leadership speaking at the event included Director Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., National Institute on Drug Abuse Director Nora Volkow, M.D., and OEODM Director Lawrence Self.