Dec 1, 1999
Outside Magazine

The Work: Be like Dennis Alan from The Serpent and the Rainbow and trek to remote jungle outposts on the prowl for medicinal plants, herbal remedies, and other unique characteristics of the local flora. Pick up tips from local shamans; then log research hours in the lab or the herbarium. Or sign on with the USDA, tracing old strains of wheat, corn, and potatoes.

Time Outside: 20-50 percent.

Payback: Academics earn $40,000-$100,000 a year. Sign on with a private company like San Francisco-based, which collaborates with native healers in 70 countries to develop dietary supplements, and you could bank more.

Prerequisites: For many nonprofit positions you need only basic botany skills, a valid passport, and a quiver of immunizations. For an advanced degree, check out Tulane University (504-588-5374;

Networking: Log on to the Center for International Ethnomedical Education and Research Web site ( for a list of training programs and conferences.

Peon to Pro: There are plenty of able botanists, but few have mastered the "ethno" angle. Stand out among more than 200 American ethnobotanists by building a rapport with healers.

Drudge Factor: International travel inevitably brings intestinal woes. "Running to the outhouse every ten minutes," says Steve King, vice president of ethnobotany at ShamanBotanicals, "is not a pleasant experience."

Outlook: The field is well watered by pharmaceutical companies, college course offerings are sprouting like, well, weeds, and following the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity, foreign nations have begun documenting their flora and fauna—good news for ethnobotanists enlisted to help with the inventories.

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