Member of Adelphi University’s 10 Under 10.“Every day is a new beginning to understanding humanity more.”—Katherine Herrera ’06
Katherine Herrera has always felt connected to nature. “I’m from Pereira, Colombia, in the central Andes mountain range. I lived in a small city, but every weekend I would go to a farm house we had.” From interacting with people from the mountains and rural areas, she learned about herbal teas and medicinal plants and a natural form of healthcare.
At age 15, after growing up in South America, she came to the United States to escape the violence and economic turmoil of her country. “I fell in love with the United States,” said Ms. Herrera, who chose to go to Adelphi for college because of the opportunities the University had to offer, and so she could remain close to her family members who had also immigrated to New York.
At Adelphi, she found a nurturing community among fellow learners and teachers. “The professors at Adelphi always encouraged you to believe in yourself, made you feel you were worth it, pushed you to go for whatever you wanted,” she said.
Her senior year, she took Plants and Human Affairs, a science seminar in which she learned about ethnobotany; the relationships among plants, people, and people’s cultures. “That’s when I realized, ‘wow, this is actually a field of study, this could be my career,’” she said.
After taking this course she had to decide whether she wanted to go straight to medical school or explore ethnobotany further. The majority of the books the class had read during the course Plants and Human Affairs were written by one of the world’s leading ethnobotanists, Michael Balick. Adelphi Professor Russell suggested that, if she was still debating what to do, to talk to Michael Balick himself. “I thought, ‘is that possible…to talk to a world-renowned ethnobotanist?’” Professor Russell’s response was, “Yes, we are all human.”
At the time Ms. Herrera did reach out to Balick, he happened to be looking for a research assistant. “Because he did his Ph.D. at Harvard, studying the palms of Colombia, he was so happy when he learned I was from Colombia. It felt like a really deep connection…it just worked,” she said. “I think it was serendipitous that we met. Sometimes in life things align. You’re not thinking or planning that it’s going to happen, and it does.”
Ms. Herrera has been working at the Institute of Economic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden since 2006. As a research assistant to Dr. Balick’s Micronesian project, she has traveled to the Pacific Islands; places that she never dreamed she would have the opportunity to see.
When she arrives at these islands, she speaks with the local chiefs, traditional leaders, and explains to them she wants to study their plants used for medicine. “These people have been scientists and observers for thousands of years. They know so much about the forest, jungle, plants. They are our informants, our local experts. We are asking them to teach us,” she said. “We’re interested in recording and preserving this local knowledge so that the culture of those traditions is not lost.”
The manuals and books Ms. Herrera and team write following their research are distributed to the villages, young people, clinics and hospitals so this information is accessible. “What’s going on now is that doctors go to study allopathic medicine. These are men and women who were kids who grew up there and learned about plants as children, but went to medical school and forgot about this. We are trying to present them with this information so they can integrate traditional medicine with allopathic,” she said.
While her work revolves around studying plants, her research has taught her just as much about humans. “I grew up among wars and so much violence. I was always trying to understand; why are we killing each other?” she said. “We’re not that different.”
Throughout the course of her travels to islands such as Palau, Samoa, and Guam, she lived for several months at a time with the indigenous people she was learning from. “When I arrived at these places, there were certain plants I knew from way back in the years when I was a little girl. That’s when I started to see the human connection. It doesn’t matter what remote parts of the world we are from, we are all similar.”
“Every day you learn something about a culture that initially seems foreign, but then you start understanding the people a little better,” she said. “Every day is a new beginning to understanding humanity more.”
After six years at The New York Botanical Garden, she is ready to move on to the next phase of her life and her career. “I have learned so much. I will miss this place, because it has given me a lot.” In September 2013, Ms. Herrera started medical school. “I know the botanical medicine. At medical school, I’ll learn the modern medicine. And then one day I hope to be able to incorporate both to help communities.”
Ideally, she would like to return to Colombia. “I want to implement what I have learned by studying these small islands in the middle of the Pacific and teach the value of traditional medicine,” she said. “Ultimately I would like to do that for Colombia, to speak to presidents and ministers and reinforce their indigenous roots. It sounds ambitious, but I’d like to go home and help incorporate integrative medicine in South America so that we can progress and improve the healthcare of our country and continent,” she said.
In May 2013, Wild Medicine, a brand new exhibit curated by Balick, opened at The New York Botanical Garden, and exhibited more than 400 healing plants from around the globe. “This is the largest mounted medicinal plant exhibit in the world,” she said. “All this time I have been giving back to communities in faraway lands. Now, through this exhibit, we are bringing knowledge to the people of New York and showing them the importance and relevance of natural medicine.”
“Being involved in this exhibit at the Botanical Garden has been extremely rewarding,” she said. “I feel that it’s a perfect way to culminate my journey here.”