‘How I got here’ – Sonia Peter

An interview* with Dr Sonia Peter, Executive Director, The Biocultural Education and Research Programme, Barbados.

~3,500 words, 30 minutes reading time.

How did you get into ethnobotany and can you describe your work?

After teaching chemistry for a number of years and being head of the Departments of Chemistry and Environmental Science at the Barbados Community College, I found I was not feeling the people-plant connection and that my work was too much on the academic side. I felt I had made my contribution in this role and it was time to do a little more in terms of education that would add value within the domain of local plant biodiversity.  So, I formed a non-profit organisation, the Biocultural Education and Research Programme, which has been a very important opportunity for me to explore what I was missing.

We have lost lots of our plant biodiversity and I felt that there was a need someone to champion the plants. I am not the only person doing this but I make an effort to connect it to reality for people here. One thing about Barbados is that we were an unfortunate outpost for the Atlantic slave trade which brought Africans to the island, so we have a population that is 95% or more based on African ancestry.  I think in terms of reconnecting I often feel that we don’t often appreciate that history of people being supplanted from everything they knew to an entirely new ecosystem in one context and then the completely skewed social environment on another. These people had to be as creative as possible with the knowledge they brought with them in order to survive and I think it is awful that we have blinders on about this in our past. Though our work does not overtly reach back into that period, I often reference it in order to make that connection.

Right now, the programme is looking at producing a publication that will look at 60 plants documented as important for health during the period of slavery on the island stretching from the mid 1600s to mid 1800s.  We have a number of historical works that were done and that is giving us a form to work on to identify plants that we know were used just to survive the harshness: for healing of wounds, digestive issues, common colds and flu and I picked those 60 because I want them to tell that story in a number of ways. One way is reconnecting with the reality of young babies being born, having fevers, rashes – what did mothers do to deal with these issues. Adults out in the field, coming back with wounds, what did they reach for? How do you go about healing yourself? I want people to reconnect with those stories. Another way is I want to boost our image in terms of reconnecting with the plants. We will be launching a herbal museum in August [2020] and these plants will feature as herbarium and living specimen that people can interact with, exploring organoleptic properties, leaves, aromas, applications and medicinal teas. We speak about cooling teas over here and we will have a cooling tea bar where you can select what you want in your pot of tea. It is so important to me that we show the depth of value of these plants and I want to demonstrate that the people [who were using them in the past] were actually scientists going through the rigour of observing, analysing and testing with no reference to publications, papers or books but with a rich oral tradition.

We are also looking at these plants in research, we can even say validating the plant use. Right now, I’m working with a group in Trinidad looking at prostate cancer interventions with a focus on active agents in plants that can work at hindering cancer cells. We have already started testing one plant from the tradition and it already has an effect where it kills prostate cancer cells but has no impact on healthy cells. Another problem we have is diabetes within our population. If you look at plants in modern history on the island, there are many being used for diabetes and hypertension –  so we are looking at a medicinal tea for the regulation of blood sugar and blood pressure which will be soon analysed by comparing it with an conventional treatment.  I have now become part of the narrative and it is a commitment to demonstrate the value of that knowledge stretching back into history.

Describe your work/what you see as your mission.

We have a history of our island being cleared of a significant part of our flora and fauna during the period of colonisation. We were really ravaged in terms of our natural species collectively, it’s terrible and that is one of the reasons I’m doing what I’m doing and formed the programme. The link between people, the natural world and heritage, is being lost – I did a survey in 8 out of 11 parishes here and it showed that the use of plants for medicinal knowledge was dwindling. I realised someone had to do something and that is why I set up the Biocultural Educational and Research Programme. It has a double-barrelled purpose of education as well as conservation. There is a very close link between biodiversity, language and communication. There was a study done a few years ago that showed that the most biodiverse regions are those where there is a great multiplicity in the ways that people communicate ideas and so I embody that in what I do – the more you talk to people about what you do, the more they understand, the more they are invested and become part of the process. Unless you reconnect them, there is no way that they can understand the importance and the significance of conservation. That speaks volumes and is what pulled me into the tenets of ethnobotany.

How did your early education influence what you do now?

From my informative years in terms of exposure to science, I developed an idea that I wanted to somehow find a cure for cancer. That might sound like a grand idea, but it was my connection with the value of science. When I did my bachelors, where my major was chemistry, I wanted to go directly into research but I started teaching and started my family. I then had 4 children and had to wait until they were of an age that I felt I could return to research. Eventually, in 1994, I went into my Masters study to look at how you go about finding these compounds and molecules that can have efficacy in the treatment of disease.  Then I met with my supervisor and he was interested in a certain class of natural product, furanoditerpenes. One of the first exercises he gave me was to do a literature search and find out what plants we have here on the island that could be potential sources of these chemicals. That was where the narrative started to unfold because I did indeed find that family and it was the Leguminosae/Fabaceae family, more specifically Caesalpinoideae, and I had to begin collecting plants in order to begin to do extracts. I remember as I was walking on the way to campus, I found myself going into the roadside and looking to see if I could collect from there.  As I was doing that, I found it reminiscent of the sort of persons who were pioneering that type of research and it gave me even more connection to what I was doing and that was the beginning of my journey. We sometimes see such roadside species as ‘just bush’ but these plants are often resilient because they’ve been pushed out of their natural habitat and they’ve had to use their attributes to help them survive. So, I’m saying that my journey into ethnobotany started with my look for natural products to fight disease but through that, it took me back to the people-plant relationships.   

Who was the most influential person(s) in your career path?

Inspiration comes in many ways – I’d have to start at home to be honest, because as I mentioned I had what can be considered a large family with 4 children and had battled with what many women in science do battle with – working with in the field brings a sort of clash of commitments. When I decided to get back into research I had to think about what was important and had to make a decision, between me and my husband, if he would not mind taking on a major role in my absence, there are times I would be in the lab for 24 hours. So, I have to say the opportunity to get back into research was the fact that he was willing to see how important it was for me to have that dream realised. To be quite honest I was in teaching and had to apply for leave and that meant I got half of the salary I would normally get. With a mortgage and kids to take care of it was a big decision to make and it could not have been made without his willingness to be part of it. He is right now working as our Master of Ceremonies for events at the research programme, unpaid. He bought into the journey and if not for him my career advancement probably would not have unfolded as it did. He is also a scientist and is the former head of division of Technology at the Barbados Community College. <How did you meet?> We both met at college way back and what attracted me to him initially was that I was intrigued by his name: Peter Peter. He really did give me the confidence to go back into research.

Sonia with husband Peter and daughter.

One thing that I found inspiring was when I joined the SEB and was invited on the board, I got to work with persons who had been putting a structure to ethnobotany. I found it inspiring in terms of being part of something that was revolutionary that was commanding a scientific space.  The commitment the members were making, not just reporting on plants and uses but invariably the stories that came with that. I remember going to Chicago in 2007 where I met people like John Rashford, a recent Distinguished Economic Botanist (DEB) at the society. The commitment to make people visible in his work was very motivational, that spurred me on to move my interests more into ethnobotany and then allowed me to be in that place between my phytochemisty and the ethnobotanical narratives. The SEB has been very influential on me! I’ll also mention Jan Salick, another DEB, whom I met relatively recently but the motivation and depth of work is inspiring. Her book on Biocultural Collections is being used to inform how we establish our herbal museum.

In terms of younger members who I find important, and at the cutting edge so that we will be reading about in modern texts: Cassandra Quave, her work in the lab searching for new antibiotics is going to be signature. Then I also want to mention John De la Parra, he is at the cutting edge of how we see plants and nutrition as he now assumes the manager’s role of the global food portfolio at the Rockefeller Foundation. Thinkers like John really put into the modern context how to probe plants further. These people continue to inspire me.

What was the highlight of your career? A moment you were proud of?

When I did my PhD looking to use my chemical knowledge to probe plants for the natural agents that they make, I worked extremely hard, did a number of iterates in terms of taking extracts and doing sequential separation with them until I, hopefully, found pure compounds. They were sent by my supervisor to get Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) testing at the University of Toronto. I got a call saying I had to fly to Jamaica because there was a chemist meeting that I needed to attend. I had no idea why, but I knew it was about my work and I was quite excited. When I got there, there was an NMR specialist presenting my work looking at the technical side of running the NMR experiments, but then I heard about the discovery of 13 compounds, I was looking around at who it might be as I wasn’t even convinced it was my work! But it was indeed my work and I had found these 13 new chemicals previously unknown to science – the feelings were immense, like a childhood dream come true. Thirteen folders for molecular analysis of the multiple experiments conducted followed but it was all very exciting. It was time well spent.

I’m also proud at being able to establish the non-profit programme to promote conservation and education via our outreach platform including our biennial symposium Plants and Planting for the Future, our interview series Under the Breadfruit Tree, development of online courses and what will be extremely exciting will be to open the herbal museum too!

And a lowlight? Was there ever a point you looked at yourself and thought what am I doing/how the hell did I get here?

As a female scientist you do meet up against a gender barrier. I remember distinctly around the time when I did my viva for my PhD. Typically, when you present your research and answer questions from the examining panel, they go away in a room and have a discussion before they say that you are granted your degree. But they immediately granted my degree without going away, they said they had no need to. I was on a high there because I had put in 100% and I thought I had realised my potential. I saw myself settling into a research position at that campus, which I was able to do so for a short time, but then there was a decision by the board about an investment in a post either for a new graduate or someone already in the system. They went into investing in someone already in the system. I felt that it was the gender barrier that worked against me, I could be wrong, but that was my impression. That is how I went over to the community college and was able to become head of the department of chemistry there. I reference this as a low point because I was looking forward to enjoying a rich profession working in research but instead had to move to a post based on teaching. However, that did enable me to make the connections later that helped me see some of that realised. In this context I still see it, in essence, as an opportunity to reengineer my career path and it pushed me into establishing networks and collaborations. These are probably undervalued skills but they now provide me with leverage for the nonprofit.

What would be your top advice for a student of ethnobotany?

I speak of her all the time but it’s not cliché, I am sincere in one of my inspirations: Marie Curie. Her journey to discovery I always found inspiring because of the conditions under which she worked in terms of the gender bias at the time. She never took it on and remained focused about her potential and what she knew she could do. She never allowed negative narratives to get to her. She had limitations in terms of having the type of equipment and materials she had. She never said: “I don’t have so I can’t do”, she found a way to DO.  That I found stimulating and I have used that – and pass on this advice, that when you have an idea, it is important going forward to see how it can be realised and not look at the potential negatives.

For example, when I was working as head of Chemistry at the college and was not realising the research I wanted to do at the back of my mind, I remembered all those ideas I had of finding a cure for cancer. I contacted my colleague at the St. Augustine campus, Professor Trevor Alleyne and asked him ‘is this something we could do?’ I have to credit him too as being part of my journey. He didn’t hesitate and so I went over to Trinidad and had a conversation with him. He had a few graduate students coming on and he sent them over to Barbados to begin screening plants for phytochemistry. This is how we identified the plant active against prostate cancer. So, If you have an idea it is important to see where it can go, not just sit on it. That is why you always have to look for the positive opportunities in your situation.

What do you do in your downtime? Any secret hobbies?

They aren’t really a secret, I actually paint! I also write, I got into writing as a challenge really. We have a literary society here based on one of our famous poets, Frank Collymore, and there is an annual literary competition. I felt I needed to explore other facets of my character and I wrote a book called Seed Under the Leaf, to be quite honest I wrote it in a couple of months.  It was about my emerging passion around the relationship between plants and people. I chose one of the plants in our tradition Phyllanthus amarus which has lovely seed pouches supported under the vein of the leaf. I saw that as an interpretation of knowledge and so used it as the title of my book. In the book I do a casual introduction of the plants that have been important to us in tradition. It wasn’t written in a technical way, it isn’t a big book but I wanted persons to connect with their heritage and to connect with the effort that it took, historically, for persons to look at plant resources and fashion a healthcare system out of it. (If you want a copy, contact Sonia). It got an honorary mention at the competition and it inspired me. We all have that ability to second guess ourselves, and it happens all the time for ourselves, though I’d like to think I am too old for that now. I attended the ceremony but had no idea that my book would be recognised. I heard someone reading out what sounded like my words, but I thought someone else had written something similar! It took my husband, who was there, to say, they’re calling you! It was really encouraging.

I then wrote another book, not yet published, but is a fictional work rooted in linking people, plants and heritage. It is about a scientist who begins to go along that journey reconnecting with her past. She is from Barbados but is originally Dominican, inspired by my husband being Dominican. She has an urge to know more about where she is from and who she is from and starts to get visits through a dream from a great-great grandmother. This grandmother is responsible for her journey through science. First she heads to South Carolina, then to Sierra Leone, then to a remote village where she discovers a particular plant used as a symbol on the skin by people coming over from Africa and this plant helps her in recovering from cancer.  It is called Beyond Beleaf but is not out yet! I have also written short stories and poems. What is not very well known is that we have a large collection of centenarians in Barbados (second only to Japan) and they are mainly female. I realised I developed a rhythm in stringing sentences together which became poems. My collection of poems is in honour of them. [Centenarian submitted to literary competition]

Euphorbia hirta. Image authors own.

What is your favourite plant and why?

I’m going to pick a diminutive herb called Euphorbia hirta. I’m picking that because of its historical significance and its invisibility in our culture. I always try to point it out, it grows in between more decorative species and typically gets pulled out as a weed. Many don’t recognise its heritage value. It is maybe 6 inches tall but is one of the plants that was relied on during the period of slavery on the island. In the 60 plants we chose {for the museum} and one I have sort of adopted. I probably had it as a favourite and didn’t realise, it seems insignificant but has a powerful heritage, it is symbolic.

Sonia offers students a placement offer in Barbados. More here.

Join the SEB Student membership from $10 to access a range of benefits. Find out more here.

*An interview with SEB Student committee member Kim Walker, June 2020. This is part of a series interviewing ethnobotanists on their career path and experiences. If you have someone you would like to recommend for interview, please email Kim at students@econbot.org

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