‘How I got here’ – Wawan Sujarwo

*An interview with Wawan Sujarwo by SEB student council member, Lukas Pawera. Wawan is a senior researcher in the Ethnobiology Research Group at the Research Centre for Biology in Indonesia; and an executive director for the Ethnobiological Society of Indonesia.

Bahasa Indonesian version here.

~2,100 words, 15 minutes reading time.

Please describe yourself in your own words. Do you consider yourself primarily an ethnobotanist or do you have another way of seeing yourself?

I prefer people calling me ethnobotanist, even though I didn’t study any specific programme on ethnobotany before I completed my PhD. I did my Bachelor’s at the Faculty of Forestry at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, Indonesia (same as the current president of Indonesia J), so initially, I thought to be a forestry officer. Previously, I was the director of the Cibodas Botanical Gardens in, West Java, and head of scientific information and services at the Bali Botanical Gardens. The Gardens are part of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI). Currently I am a senior researcher in the Ethnobiology Research Group, Research Centre for Biology. I am also an executive director for the Ethnobiological Society of Indonesia.

Describe your work/what you see as your mission

Ethnobotany is about conserving plants and culture. And my mission is clear, we have to be responsible for keeping this knowledge and biodiversity for the next generations. We don’t know what will happen in the next 30 years. But how to work on that mission? We can conserve plants in botanical gardens and natural sites, and also deposit plants in herbaria. But the case of knowledge is different, and we need to document it through our research. For example, I really like the repository of articles in the journal of Economic Botany. It´s easy to retrieve so many articles and information since its first issue published a long time ago. To support my missionI have recently started developing a project using artificial intelligence to better store ethnobotanical knowledge.

What/where did you study? Do you think this influences you in any particular way?

As I mentioned, I did my bachelor in forestry at the Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. After that, I joined the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), and what happened is that they assigned me to work in Bali Botanical Gardens as a Junior Research Officer. But you know, they encouraged me to strengthen my background and to study more. So, I started looking for opportunities, and in 2012, I had two options and could choose to enrol in a PhD programme either in Germany or in Italy. My Italian mentor told me that I had to do a thesis on “ethnobotany in Bali”. So, I decided to go to Università degli studi di Roma Tre to study a programme called Biodiversity and Ecosystem Analysis, and I arranged my topic to be ethnobotany of Bali. My supervisor was Professor Giulia Caneva, who has a broader background in botany. But then, I became quite stressed when I came to know that I have to publish at least three papers in international journals! Especially since I hadn’t published in an international journal before. So, in my first year in Italy, I lost 12 kg and was wondering what should I do?! However, I managed my time, concentration and I worked hard and I published my first paper in the journal of Economic Botany! Oh, I was so happy! The paper was about the erosion of Balinese indigenous knowledge on food and nutraceutical plants.

When I became engaged in ethnobotanical fieldwork, I realised how much I liked ethnobotany. It was my golden time doing ethnobotany in Bali, foremost because of the local people who were so friendly.

An interview with Balian Usada (an indigenous medical practitioner, knowledgeable on plant uses). He showed us Lontar Usada (an old manuscript of traditional Balinese medicine, written on the leaves of Borassus flabellifer in the old Balinese language)

Before Rome, I had visited Germany for a short course at the Technische Universität Dresden. Then in Rome, everything was nice, but in fact, I spent a lot of time with data collection in Bali. Doing a PhD in Europe taught me how to manage data and divide them accordingly for each topic. I also learned how to manage time and work. But what changed me more as a person, actually, was the fieldwork in Bali because I am from Java, and this was a completely new cultural experience for me. But career-wise, publishing in international journals helped me to enter the global scientific community. Before, I didn’t have many outputs and was disconnected. We have 24 hours in a day, and since my studies, I have been following the working pattern of at least 6 hours per day (though often on weekends too).

What got you interested in ethnobotany?

Basically, I was sort of requested by my Italian supervisor to become an ethnobotanist! And I am happy about that. Since I did my first ethnobotanical fieldwork, I became interested in ethnobotany more and more. Mainly because of interacting with the traditional Balinese community and experiencing their magnificent culture.

After finished fieldwork (escape from the forest), we took a group photo with the kids in the Balinese village of Penglipuran

Did you ever think you would be an ethnobotanist growing up? What did you want to be when you were a child? If you were not an ethnobotanist, what would you be?

No! As I mentioned, I started forestry studies, so I thought I would be something like a forestry officer for the Indonesian government. I didn’t have a particular vision of my future work during my childhood, as I am a typical simple person with no dreams, hehe, my way is to follow the life and the things it brings along the way.

Wawan on the beach of Alas Purwo National Park, East Java in the year of 2008

What made you choose your current research themes in ethnobotany?

I have a broad ethnobotanical interest, not only one specific theme. Realistically, the actual focus and specific theme also depend on the grant and project. I have been much focused on Ethnobotany of Bali, but since I joined the Ethnobiology Research Group in Bogor, my ideas are growing, and I am happy to be part of the Herbarium Bogoriense, the oldest herbarium in the South-East Asia established in 1841. Besides classic ethnobotany, I am also becoming interested in plant remains and archaeobotany, although I am not an expert on this, but I would like to expand my expertise in the future.

Who was the most influential person(s) on your career? Was there ever an act of (kindness/fate) that changed your life course?

My parents! My mother is teaching in elementary school, and my father was a farmer (he passed away last year). Both of them encouraged me to study hard. I grew up in a remote village in Central Java, and both of my parents motivated and supported me to study hard. I am grateful to them. I have always been motivated to share my work and findings along the way, so now I am really happy that students of Economic Botany asked me to share about myself and my work, though I didn’t know that “I got here” J

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

The moment I am proud of, was when I obtained my PhD degree. The second key moment is when I got the promotion to be the director of the botanical garden. But managing this kind of position required a lot of coordination and administration, so the research activities go a bit on the side. More general achievements for me are when I publish in international journals, which brings more recognition at the global level.

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?

I had stressful moments during the article review process when I received very tough reviews from the reviewers. This can sometimes be very challenging and stressful. Step by step, starting from the easiest one, I am sure we can incorporate all reviewers’ comments. 

What would be your top advice for a student of ethnobotany? (maybe 1 or 2 tips, or things you had wish you had known as a student?

My main suggestion is to learn to manage your time well – work at least six hours per day, which I found as the optimal working time. If you focus, you can do a lot of things within that time, but do not chit chat much at this time, hehe! Another recommendation is to read important books and methodologies, which will build a solid base for your research and work. Keeping a good attitude when you conduct an interview with your respondents (data collection) is very essential.

Fieldwork in the Island of Flores, East Nusa Tenggara (part of Lesser Sunda Islands)

How do you see the future of ethnobotany? i.e. new trends, areas not yet researched, areas that are over researched? What do you see as the most important mission of ethnobotany for the future?

I think we should tap the potential of new technologies. Now I and my colleague Marc Böhlen are developing an idea of how to integrate artificial intelligence into ethnobotany. AI is a technology that could help us to store an ethnobotanical knowledge in a certain database or repository of information. We are trying to develop a software that is storing the image of the plant, and then we can add ethnobotanical information (the work is in progress). On the globe, there are still many useful plants, but humanity used only a few of them, so we should develop more food plants and other plant resources, including domestication or some promising wild and semi-wild plants.

Who is your favourite ethnobotanical researcher?

At this time, I admire the works of Ulysses Albuquerque, who I think is very productive and inspiring. Another important research is Victoria Reyes-García who has a broad expertise and is going beyond ethnobotany and ethnoecology. Andrea Pieroni and Cassandra Quave are also doing great research on food and medicinal plants. In addition, I have been inspired by the works of Nancy Turner and Michael J. Balick, who are great ethnobotanists. Lastly, I would like to mention Rainer W. Bussman and Narel Paniagua-Zambrana, who are doing a lot of ethnobotanical research.

Do you suggest any ‘must read’ ethnobotany books?

For a start, I can definitely suggest the Guidelines for Ethnobotanical Research by Alexiades and Sheldon published in 1996. In Indonesia, we lack of methodological books and articles and many students and researchers are challenged to have a good understanding in the importance and design of solid research methodology. We need to read more books and methodological guides. Indonesian researches in general publish quite a lot in Indonesian language, but much less in English, so there is also a language challenge.

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

I like watching movies, listening to music, and traveling to new places which brings new inspiration, ideas and cultural experience.

What is your favourite plant and why?

My favourite plant is Arenga pinnata – a sugar palm. In Bali, where I have done most of my work, this palm is a cultural keystone species. It is very important for the local people, and every single plant part has uses and cultural importance. I am impressed by the usefulness of this plant!

Forest inventory in the Batukaru Nature Reserve, Bali

Last question Wawan, could you tell us what are the activities and mission of the Ethnobiological Society of Indonesia?

It was established in 1998 and the mission is to conduct and promote ethnobotanical and ethnobiological studies. Colleagues asked me to become its executive director, a part of this commitment is to enhance the Journal of Tropical Ethnobiology published by the Society, where I am the editor-in-chief. We at the Society are also discussing how to bring more members and how to benefit the broader Indonesian society and economy. The last conference we organised was a long time ago in 2009, but now we are planning to have a conference in December 2020. And next year, we are planning to hold an international conference!

Contact Wawan: wawan.sujarwo@lipi.go.id


*An interview with SEB Student council member, Lukas Pawera. This is part of a series interviewing ethnobotanists on their career path and experiences. To read more of these, click on the Interview/Bio category in the side panel. If you would like to interview someone, please email Kim Walker at students@econbot.org

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