SPOTLIGHT: Dr. Maria Fadiman ~ Florida Atlantic University | Houston Archaeology Education

What do Starbucks, National Geographic and plants have in common?  Dr. Maria Fadiman!

This coming Monday, November 6, 2017, Dr Maria Fadiman (Florida Atlantic University Associate Professor) will be speaking at our Discover Lecture series – Roots of Knowledge: Saving Indigenous Plants for Our Future” at the Houston Museum of Natural Science from 6:30pm to 8:30 pm.

THREE things to know about Dr. Fadiman

  1. She is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer –  accolade created by National Geographic to acknowledge the work of visionaries who are using their skills to create innovative solutions for problems facing the world.
  2. She has been on a Starbucks cup!
  3. One of her projects, funded by a National Geographic Genographic Legacy Grant, created a collaborative booklet of plants of the Ha people of Bubango, Tanzania, Africa.  As a result, the community now has a lasting record of their own knowledge.

Dr. Maria Fadiman

We sat down with Dr. Fadiman recently to discuss Ethnobotany, Costa Rica, and National Geographic.

Q: Tell us about how you became interested in ethnobotany.

A: I always loved nature, but worried about mastering the science behind it.  I knew I wanted to do conservation but I didn’t really know how I would approach it. I found my path during a junior year abroad in Costa Rica.  During the months, I worked as a nature guide in a rainforest.  The intense training for the position required that I learn about the country’s flora and fauna and relay that information to visitors. I realized this is science and that I could do it.

Q: How did your experience in Costa Rica help you build a career?

A: My experience in Costa Rica was so transformative that I returned the following year during my senior year and that’s when I first heard the term “ethnobotany.” I began to realize that if I wanted to do conservation, I would have to include everyone, and everything, out there: the plants, the animals, the whole community. After receiving my undergraduate degree in Latin American Studies from Vassar, an internship at the New York Botanical Gardens convinced me it was time to go back to school. I received a master’s degree in anthropology and a PhD in geography from the University of Texas.

Q: Tell us more about your National Geographic experience.

A: My work has taken me from the rainforests of Central and South America to the savannas of Africa and on to Tibet, China, the Philippines, and Oceania.  Not only am I concerned about interactions between people and plants but whether or not these interactions are sustainable. I’m also concerned that knowledge is recorded and doesn’t get lost over the generations. For example, in Africa, I helped craft a trilingual (Kiha, Swahili, and English) book that helped preserve knowledge about the uses of area plants and trees. In Tibet, I was able to record the details of plants used to make varieties of incense used in ceremonies. It was exciting when my work caught the attention of National Geographic! They selected me as one of their “Emerging Explorers,” a group of people who are using their skills to create innovative solutions for problems facing the world.

PROFILE:  Dr. Maria Fadiman researches the human/environmental aspect of conservation, focusing on ethnobotany, or the study of the relationship between people and plants. Maria works primarily in rural areas and her research focuses on the rainforests of Latin America.  Some projects include investigating oil exploration in the Amazon and organic coffee production in the Galápagos. She has also examined alternative livelihoods through sustainable wood carving in Zimbabwe, house construction from natural materials in the Philippines, Maori people’s use of the kauri tree in New Zealand, and Tibetan childrens’ recordings of their own ethnobotanical knowledge on the plateau. Current projects include working with Kenny Broad on his project in the Bahamas Blue Holes National Park, facilitating the retention of language and ecological knowledge with the Ha people of Tanzania, and working with the Cultural Sanctuaries Foundation in Bhutan.

She was selected as a National Geographic Emerging Explorer in 2006 and has been featured as a TEDx speaker: in Berkeley, California, and Cancún, Mexico, and was a contributor to the book Global Chorus. She has also been featured in the Grand Rapids Community College series “Conversation with a Geographer” as part of the Visiting Geographical Scientist Program. An associate professor in the Department of Geosciences at Florida Atlantic University, Maria was chosen for the Innovation in Teaching award from the College of Science and was a nominee for the Distinguished Teacher of the Year award from the university. She has been featured as a notable Vassar alumni in the university magazine.

An inspiring way of sending out her message, occurred when she was featured on a Starbucks cup. In Starbucks The Way I See It No 233 she said I used to think that going to the jungle made my life an adventure. However, after years of unusual work in exotic places, I realize that it is not how far off I go, or how deep into the forest I walk that gives my life meaning. I see that living life fully is what makes life – anyone’s life, no matter where they do or do not go – an adventure.