‘How I got here’ – Renata Sõukand

Society for Economic Botany – ‘How I got here’ Guidelines

An interview with Renata Sõukand, Associate Professor of ethnobotany at the Università Ca’ Foscari Venezia.

Twitter @RenataSoukand

~ 2,800 words, around 20-30 minutes reading time.

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

In a way I identify myself through ethnobotany. For a long time I had a problem positioning myself because I come from pharmacy and environmental sciences and then I did a PhD in semiotics and cultural studies. I consider myself an ethnobotanist, but not a classical one. If we put the ethnobotany on the people-plant scale, I am more on the people side, interested in formation of relations between people and plants (and environment in general), from the cultural studies perspective.

Describe your work/what you see as your mission

I have never phrased it like this but I think I have different missions. The first is teaching. Currently I teach three courses but whatever the titles are for those, it is ultimately about teaching biocultural diversity. This is one mission, to promote the understanding of biocultural diversity and why we need it.

I also present myself as someone being bioculturally diverse, having an Estonian father and a Ukrainian mother, having lived in Estonia, Ukraine, Russia, the US and now in Italy. I am also genetically diverse and at the same time have studied very distinct disciplines. So, I represent biocultural diversity and interdisciplinarity. It gives me an advantage in a way to see different phenomena from different perspectives. I can step in my Ukrainian shoes, my Estonian shoes, from my pharmacy shoes, or my semiotics background etc., which gives the possibility to look through different lenses. This is my second mission to show that this is a key to understanding other people and maybe life. What we now face is high ‘specifisation’ and it has not helped us, it has destroyed connections. For example, in Estonia I had trouble fitting into humanities institutionally, but also the life science people were looking at me strangely, I was at the edge of every discipline. It was not easy, but keep your line and you will succeed.

My middle daughter published her first novel a few days before turning 13. The book is in Italian and it is about asking the right questions. It is a fantasy book where people, animals and plants are equal actors and acceptation of the diversity is the key for survival.  

Did you ever think you would be an ethno/botanist growing up?[Or work with plants?]

My mum was a chemist but during my childhood, she became interested in medicinal plants, so we went around trying to identify them. Sometimes we got them wrong. But she gathered them and would use them to heal herself and others. She was a neighbourhood healer. At one point I wanted to follow her and become a doctor, but having just moved schools to Estonia and did not having the language, I was not sure my Estonian was good enough to get to medical studies. However, I finished school with high grades, and got into university to study pharmacy.

Renata with her mother

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

I studied Pharmacy for 5 years diploma studies, which is now equivalent to a Masters. I created a database on historical folk medicine by systematising archival herbal texts. Then I went to environmental technology for another Masters, though my supervisor said my technology thesis was too poetical and not scientific enough, but I got my Masters anyway. Then for my doctoral studies, I went to semitotics.

How did I arrive there? In my bachelors, I felt that it was merely reading and memorising for exams, and did not really need to understand or think a lot. I did not find it challenging enough, so I started to read humanities texts on my own to trying to understand. At the beginning I did not have the mind to understand them, but I forced myself to dig through these texts, marking the key words I did not understand, to train myself to understand and see the connections, to study in a different way. Eventually, I started really to enjoy it, so I chose semiotics, as it was an extension of this kind of approach. I realised I did not want to study the chemistry of plants, but still wanted to learn and understand the folk-medicinal tradition, though I wouldn’t have articulated it this way at the time, it was an intuitive choice. My PhD was called the Herbal Landscape.

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

I never really imagined until the last few years that I was actually doing a ‘career’. For me it has been a path of exploration, understanding myself, my path, my people, my roots, from my multi-ethnic background. Discovering where I belong, what my role is in life, what I should do.

During my studies, I felt sometimes disappointed in my PhD supervisor, Kalevi Kull, because he supervised me in such a mild way, and it was not really semiotics that I ended up doing. I used semiotic methods in my own way, as said one of my reviewers, anthropologist Myrdene Anderson. However, I realised lately that what Kalevi was doing was the best method for allowing me to find my own way, and I am very thankful to him for that.

Since the end of PhD, Andrea Pieroni was my mentor and teacher in this journey, especially in fieldwork. I had some experience with folkloritsts, but not ethnobotany, though intuitively I did the right thing. I mainly worked with archives in my PhD and Andrea pushed me into the field and showed me how to work. In the field with him I understood the importance of cultural translation and that words can be misleading if the context is not taken into account in a culturally sensitive way.  

I have so much influence from so many of my colleagues, it is difficult to name them all, especially the Eastern European network of ethnobiology researchers which has a great influence. The list of all the people is really, really long and I don’t want to start it in order to not forget someone equally important. However, I want to especially name Raivo Kalle, my partner in work and life, who has been by my side from my very first ethnobotanical aspirations and not only encouraged me to move forward but also contributed himself to all ideas and developments. It is like we are growing together, just that he stays in the background, letting me shine.

My role model in ethnobotany, is Nancy Turner and it feels like yesterday, meeting her at the ISE meeting on Torino in 2010. She impressed me so much being a woman in science. She is so strong and she has such a presence, having a presence means you don’t need words but make people feel confident just by being there. [Interviewer then mentioned how warm and kind Nancy seems]. Success without kindness is empty. You never get there alone; you share this with many people, like now the major part of my work is shared with my extended DiGe team members, including interdisciplinary and international students and postdocs, but also several artists. At different points, you have to decide what turn you take in life, and it may be influenced by one word from someone who you just meet now and then. I only started meeting ethnobotanists at the end of my PhD and it was so surprising how the Ethnobio community was behaving. Students were equal to professors, we didn’t feel the superiority of professors. This is extremely important to personal growth as an example. I say this to my students, that they are my colleagues, as they may know things I don’t know. I try to give my lectures as exchange. I can see how confused they are at the beginning, the first two lectures they expect to be told all the things they need to know for their exam. I tell them I don’t remember the words my lecturers told me, it is better to learn a few things but discuss them with peers, especially from a different discipline. Another perspective is another type of knowledge. Finally, they start to enjoy it. Maybe they learn fewer concepts but they will understand them through, I would even say “experience them” and that is the most important thing, especially with biocultural diversity. You have to embrace it, not learn it. I don’t give them facts, I give them tools to find the facts on their own when they need them.

What was a highlight of your journey? A moment you were proud of?

The moment I see that my students are happy, when they laugh during the lecture, because they enjoy the process. For example, yesterday I asked them to play at defending or opposing saving an animal or habitat. We were studying extinction.

I also love reading feedback from students in my lectures and see their openness for being inclusive. I realised how important this is in my very first course in Ca’ Foscari when we were talking about linguistic diversity. Jimlea, one of the students who later did her master thesis with me, did the presentation on the article discussing the positive correlation between linguistic and biological diversity. After the presentation she said with the tears in her eyes that all her life she tried to learn English as best she could and forget her language and now, she realised how important that is. Now she regained how to reconnect with her culture. She is about to publish the studies she did for the thesis in her own community and they are very powerful and beautiful.

These highlights are the teacher in me speaking, because this is what I do at the university, but in the field I am happy for something different. When you speak to people and ask for something so trivial for them, they are surprised. At the moment they realise that you actually know more than them, but you are still interested in what they think is their ‘insignificant knowledge’. When you see how their self-confidence rises, it is incredible. We say we have to give back to community, and for me, I leave part of myself there through every interview. This is multiplying because the person realises that what they know well but felt was insignificant is actually important. This may, for many of them, support a wish to share this knowledge to their children: to continue making sauerkraut or fermentation because the knowledge is valuable for someone who, in their opinion, knows the value.

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 thelowest professional moment just before I got the note from the ERC that I got to the second evaluation round , in Spring 2016. I was pretty sure I was going to quit science, as I had been doing it for so long, writing a lot of proposals, but not succeeding. I had no financial backup. Without ERC I would probably have quit science and took a different road. We really struggled financially with three kids; you have to feed them somehow. Many good scientific colleagues in Estonia became teachers because they could not support their families. This was a difficult time for many people and getting funding was an exception.

When I was also moving to Italy in fall 2017 to an unknown environment, I could not understand the ‘rules’ to live here. I wondered what I was doing. But this was a short loneliness, as my colleagues and administrative team really helped me.  I have two children with disabilities, so there were many additional problems I had to deal with in this new life, and sometimes I wished to quit and retreat to a lonely mountain, alone.

I don’t think anyone has had an easy way to success. But I know many scientists who have had very difficult times, so I keep in mind what they have been through. There are moments you feel you are about to break, but you still go on. As a student I took several stops during my studies; my study path was everything else but linear. 

Would that be your top tip for a student of ethnobotany?

Find your own way. For example, if you love music, find music in ethnobotany. If you try to follow your professor’s path, you may be successful, but it won’t be you. This is why, at the end of the day, I am so thankful to my PhD supervisor as he let me be myself and choose my own path.

Do not rush for success. It will not come without hard, unrecognized work. It is important to give yourself the space in life to be angry, to cry, don’t oppress it. It is important to understand this, especially in this Instagram style life where the highlights are shown, but not the dirty work behind it and we get depressed because we don’t have the success every day. It is important to always move forward, sometimes a tiny step at a time, even if sometimes you need to take a step back. Be guided by the words of Dalai Lama: “Never give up developing the heart…” The human side needs to come first, the rest will follow.

Renata with husband Raivo Kalle and children

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 Ethnobotany has the potential to help people reconnect with nature. The current youngest population knows well the computer and cell phone screen, but are mainly plant ignorant and this is a dangerous phenomenon. Plants are so important component of our life from the air we breathe to the food we eat, to the emotions we get from looking out of the window. If you spend your life on the phone, you can come knowledgeable about a birch tree in the “matrix”, but if you never touch it, you cannot learn about its reality.

10 years ago, I was at a conference and raised an issue about food security. A German professor laughed and said, if you are short of potatoes in Estonia, you can just order bananas from India. But at the beginning of the coronavirus when Poland closed the borders, and no trucks came through, you can see that at that point if there is no local food security, international connections mean nothing. We have written about this – the importance of small-scale farming and knowing wild food around to have immediate food security when you need it.

So Ethnobotany can contribute to strengthening this relationship, but before we even get there, we need to change how we see nature. In the crisis we are in now, the main role is played by the subconscious feeling that we (humans) are superior. But there are many indigenous communities who do not think in this way and they behave very differently, in the way they position themselves to nature. I can bring the example of Estonian and Finnish, in which plants are talked about using the same personal pronouns used for humans. It makes you more humble. This is what we need a return to.

We need less of searching for specific plants and medicines, they will always come. We need to understand the relationships, to re-establish this relationship with the environment we live in and to take the responsibility for the success of this relation. Especially with the Covid-19 emergency and lockdowns many people realized the importance of non-human relations along with the human ones.

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

I like to read in the swing under a tree and follow time to time the course of the clouds, not letting any thought enter my mind. Or when I need extra concentration and energy for the day, I practice taiji. I have painted with oil in pre-science life, now I barely have time for photography.  I am proud to be the first reader of my daughters books (have just finished reading the third one). Any free time has been for my three children. But when I do have time, I enjoy taiji and art.

What plant represents you and why?

I want to say an oak tree, growing and observing life, but I also feel I rush about too much so perhaps I am still an acorn rolling around for now.


*An interview with SEB Student committee member Kim Walker, May 2021. 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 have someone you would like to recommend for interview, or interview yourself, please contact students@econbot.org to arrange.

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