Hunting Plants in Nepal

January 13, 2014Pre-med student Alex O’Neill (C’15) didn’t always see a way to combine his interests in medicine and ecology—until he began studying plant-based medicine. Funded by a Boren scholarship, O’Neill is spending a year in Nepal, studying the uses, perceptions, and management of medicinal plants.

Boren scholarships fund the study of less common languages in countries that are underrepresented in study abroad programs. You’re the first student to choose to study Nepali on a Boren scholarship. What’s been your experience learning Nepali?
Alex O’Neill: I was an American in a house of Nepali guys and my TA, who was also American. It was sink or swim in terms of communication, so you learn Nepali. My roommates spoke English, but the general society with whom I was working did not. I’m grateful for this—although it was hard at first—that I’m not with many Americans because it demanded that I work to learn the language.

I am also now learning Tibetan, which is spoken throughout the Himalayan belt. Before Boren, I didn’t think it would be necessarily useful to learn a language like Nepali or Tibetan, but the opportunities that you have I now realize are extraordinary. Companies like Google, the government, and think tanks look to hire people with specialist language skills and cultural knowledge. These are important languages and are associated with beautiful, friendly cultures.

What have you been doing in your first few months in Kathmandu, Nepal?
I spent two months learning language and the other half of my time has been devoted to independent research. So I’ve been wandering around Nepal, hunting parasitic plants. Next semester I’ll be by myself, so I’ll have individual classes with my professors from Tribhuvan National University of Nepal. And I’ll do my own project again.

What’s Nepal like? Why is it an interesting place for ecological study?
It’s beautiful. Nepal goes from 60 meters to 8,900 meters [above sea level], with low tropical and high subalpine areas. You cover every vegetative zone, within a tiny area. The climate changes based on the geography. The climate on one mountain differs from another depending on the surroundings.

What research have you been doing on parasitic plants this semester?
My specialty is parasitic and heterotrophic plants, which are basically plants that eat other plants. I went through all of the records in [Nepal’s] herbariums. That’s where I started. I’m the first one to do anything on parasitic plants in Nepal. My research in finding the uses for the plants has never been recorded before. My work will probably be used in their [national] biodiversity strategy, and it could be used to help inform policy.

To get information about the plants, you’ve been interviewing shamans. What have you learned about shamanism in Nepal, and what have the shamans thought of your research?
They were interested in why I was interested. I was in a village where there are 30 shamans there, and each one specializes in something in particular, such as death rites, spiritual possession, birth ceremonies, the zodiac. At first I thought that shamanism was very exotic. But when you think about it, it’s no different than Georgetown priests or other spiritual advisors. It’s just a different environment and different cultural background.

You also describe your research of parasitic plants in Nepal as cultural preservation, why?
The way lifestyles are changing—they are changing dramatically in Nepal. Eighty-five percent of the population relies on agriculture as their primary livelihood. But now children are being sent to India and abroad to do work on the Gulf or to be educated. The traditional botanical knowledge is being lost rapidly because of globalization. It’s no longer [as] relevant. You no longer need the cultural ties that go with all of these [plants]. At a basic level, what I’m doing is recording culture, names, and myths.

What do you find interesting about parasitic plants?
Parasitic plants release [chemicals] to detect hosts and convince host plants that they want to grow toward the parasite. They’re plants, so they don’t have brains. They aren’t actively “thinking” about [this process]. It’s all biochemistry.

You’ve been working to identify and categorize parasitic plants, but what further research do you want to see done?
My idea is that the chemicals that the plants release to detect hosts actually have potential in medicine. The folk [remedies] are valid, and they serve purposes. The “miracle medicine” is not going to be in the traditional use, in my opinion. The novel use is going to be in extracting the chemicals the plants use to find host plants. There’s already been a case using parasitic plants in cancer research here at Georgetown.

—Elizabeth Wilson

Related Information

Learn more about Boren scholarships and other research opportunities from the Georgetown University Office of Fellowships, Awards, and Research (GOFAR).