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Undergraduates to study medicinal plants, culture of healing in Peru

MHIRT group in the Garden of Medicinal Plants at EsSalud, Trujillo, Peru. UB biochemist Gail Willsky is on the far right, wearing a hat, and UB student Brian Zylinski is in the rear, wearing a bright blue shirt. Kneeling in the front row are, from left, UB student Thomas Cleland and adjunct faculty member Douglas Sharon, co-director of the Peru project. Others in the group are, from left, Abelardo Arellano, University of California-Berkeley; Sam Gauksheim, Linfield College; Luis Fernandez Sosaya, EsSalud director; Elizabeth Pon, Brown University; Joy Barranis, University of Illinois; and Rubi Galarza and Mariela Nevarez, both from UC-Berkeley. Photo: Courtesy of Gail Willsky


Published November 15, 2013

UB undergraduate students will travel to northern Peru next summer to conduct rigorous interdisciplinary research into the biological and chemical properties of indigenous medicinal plants and study ways in which the plants are employed by the curanderos — the region’s native healers — as well as the cultural meanings attached to these practices.

This collaborative effort involving anthropologists, natural products chemists, ethnobotanists and physicians in the U.S. and Peru is is funded by an undergraduate Minority Health International Research Training (MHIRT) grant from the National Institutes of Health to San Diego State University (SDSU).

MHIRT involvement in Peru began 11 years ago through the collaboration of ethnobotanist Rainer Bussmann, director of the William L. Brown Center for Plant Genetic Resources, Missouri Botanical Garden, and Douglas Sharon, now an adjunct professor of anthropology at UB and at SDSU.

Gail Willsky, associate professor of biochemistry in the UB School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, became involved three years ago when microbiology and chemistry laboratory work became a more important part of the project  Her students previously have participated in that aspect of the research.

This year’s research will consist of two interrelated studies in anthropology and laboratory analysis co-directed by Willsky and Sharon.

Ana Mariella Bacigalupo, associate professor in the Department of Anthropology, UB College of Arts and Sciences, will coordinate the anthropology portion of the project at UB.

A student from the University of Illinois grinds dried plants (brown pile) while green plants are drying. Photo: Gail Willsky

UB student Thomas Cleland uses a dissecting microscope to monitor the viability of brine shrimp used to assess plant toxicity. Photo: Gail Willsky

Willsky, a biochemist whose research areas include the anti-diabetic properties of metal-containing compounds, says she will work with students “to conduct research into the anti-bacterial properties and toxicology of extracts of medicinal plant and plant mixtures used by Peruvian healers to treat infectious diseases. They also will learn to identify and collect plants and to prepare extracts for analysis.”

These “wet bench” laboratory studies — so called because the chemistry generally is conducted in the liquid phase at lab bench — will take place in the Faculty of Chemical Engineering at the Universidad Nacional de Trujillo in Trujillo, Peru.

John Crane, an expert in infectious diseases and associate professor in the Department of Medicine in the UB medical school, will serve as a consultant to the project.

The anthropological side of the project will be led by Sharon, whose work includes extensive research into curanderism and medicinal plant use on the northern coast of Peru. He is the author of “The Wizard of the Four Winds: A Shaman’s Story,” about the mestizo curanderism of the late Eduardo Calderon (Sharon now works with Calderon’s daughter, Julia, also a curandera) and “Shamanism and the Sacred Cactus,” a study of the use of the hallucinogenic San Pedro cactus by Peruvian shamans.

Douglas Sharon, co-director of the Peru project, with, from left Maria Calderon and curandero Julia Calderon, the widow and daughter of the late Eduardo Calderon, a powerful curandero and the subject of a book by Sharon. Photo: Courtesy of Douglas Sharon

Bacigalupo, who will coordinate the anthropology project at UB, has for decades investigated and published on indigenous shamanic healing practices among the Mapuche people of Chile.  She is the author of “The Voice of the Drum in Modernity: Tradition and Change in the Healing Therapies of Seven Mapuche Shamans” and “Shamans of the Foye Tree: Gender, Power and Healing Among Chilean Mapuche.”

“The project’s anthropology research,” she says, “will address several areas: the cultural meanings and curanderos’ uses of medicinal herbs and herbal mixtures; the collaboration between practitioners of modern medicine and the curanderos in the fields of phytotherapy, ethnobotany, pharmacy and psychology; patients’ health care- seeking behaviors and how they navigate traditional versus biomedical health care systems; and the impacts of traditional medicine and ethnobotany on the improvement of health care in Trujillo.”

The mesa of curandero Julia Calderon is an altar-like arrangement of power objects laid out on the ground. Photo: Courtesy of Rainer W. Bussman

This work, says Bacigalupo, will be conducted at the homes of curanderos and at the Centro de Atención en Medicina Complementaria (CAMEC)-EsSalud in Trujillo, a center for complementary medicine, as well as at the highland gardens of medicinal herbs in Huamachuco, on the Andean cordillera.

Additional direction will be provided by medical anthropologist Linda Kahn, research associate professor and National Research Service Award fellow in the Department of Family Medicine in the UB medical school.

Willsky’s lab previously identified 16 two-plant mixtures used by Peruvian curanderos specifically to treat infectious disease. Seven of these mixtures were studied in 2012 and 2013, and the 2014 summer project will continue that work.

Information for prospective participants

The cost for students participating in the Peruvian study is $2,800, which includes airfare, lodging, local transportation and food.


Medical students are eligible for funding through the UB School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.


Undergraduate minority students are eligible for funding through National Institute of Health, Minority Health and Health Disparities International Research Training Grant.


Minority, first-generation and low-income undergraduate students are eligible for funding through the McNair scholars program.


Anthropology students must be fluent in Spanish. Previous coursework on native healing traditions in Latin America and ethnographic research methodologies is helpful. Interested anthropology students should contact Bacigalupo at

Students participating in the laboratory work must have experience in traditional laboratory chemistry and biology courses. Prior research experience is helpful. Interested biomedical students should contact Willsky at

Wow, this is awesome. Way to go UB! I wish that I could have done my undergrad work within this program. What a wonderful opportunity for these students and how great that UB is integrating shamanic work with plants into their curriculum and being a leader in this country toward a more progressive (albeit ancient) form of healing arts.


Clarissa Harison