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Vol. LXII, No. 21
October 15, 2010

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Medicinal Biochemist Rodriguez Underscores Latino Contributions to Health, Medicine

On the front page...

Dr. Eloy Rodriguez knows a thing or two about making one’s way in the world. As a guest lecturer at NIH’s observance of Hispanic Heritage Month, he told how his love of science and tremendous family support took him from an impoverished upbringing to the groundbreaking science he is conducting today.

Rodriguez grew up in a large family that included some 67 first cousins, a family tree so large “we had enough for two football teams with cheerleaders and people in the stands throwing beer cans at us,” he told the Lister Hill Auditorium audience.

Born and reared in one of the poorest regions of south Texas, in an area he calls “Chicano land,” Rodriguez grew up not bilingual, as one might suspect, but instead what he calls trilingual—knowing English, Spanish and the blend known as Spanglish. His family can trace its American roots back to the 1600s, another fact many people might not think upon meeting him, he says.


  Dr. Eloy Rodriguez at Lister Hill Auditorium  
  Dr. Eloy Rodriguez at Lister Hill Auditorium  

Rodriguez is professor of ethnobotanical medicine (the study of how people interact with plants) and pharmacognosy (the study of medicines derived from natural sources) at Cornell University. He speaks with a booming voice and is fueled by a passion for the medicine that can be found in the Earth’s most powerful and beneficial flowers, herbs and food. He told the audience, which included dozens of students visiting from Wheaton High School, that he is inspired by the knowledge that some cultures, both current and long gone, have been working with these same plants for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years.

“In Mexico, over 500 plants are used for the treatment of diabetes,” he said. “And they’re still using the same plants that were used from the time of the Aztecs and before.”

Modern medicine has found it mattered little that these earlier societies didn’t have the benefit of microscopes and sterile working environments. Cited in books and passed down for centuries, these same plant compounds have been found to indeed be potent treatments against cancer, diabetes and malaria and many have been found to be effective insect repellents.

Rodriguez met with an attentive group of youngsters from Wheaton High School following his talk in Lister Hill Auditorium.

Rodriguez met with an attentive group of youngsters from Wheaton High School following his talk in Lister Hill Auditorium.

The vast majority of these treatments have been part of the caregiving portfolio of women since their discovery, as women are often the driving force behind many cultures’ healing histories, he said. For him, finding cures in nature is a matter of chemistry.

“Did you know the Chinese were using penicillin 5,000 years ago?” he said. “Alexander Fleming isolated the compound, but it had been used for thousands of years. The beauty of penicillin is that it’s a fungus that kills other bacteria. So, if you want to kill bacteria, go get it from a fungus.”

Rodriguez emphasized that even when cultures met or clashed through invasion, slavery or war, what emerged was a blend of old and new practices to push forward the understanding of plant-based medicine. Examples can be seen in the nutritious bitter yams and okra brought by Africans in the slave trade to the Caribbean and America, as well as the natural resistance to smallpox developed by the indigenous people after the Europeans’ arrival with the virus wiped out entire villages.

For Rodriguez, this blending of cultures in America is still ongoing. He showed a photo of a class of his graduate students, their faces indicating a broad spectrum of origins and cultural backgrounds; many of them he identified as children of multi-ethnic parents.

“It is this diversity, this beautiful diversity,” he said as he urged the visiting students to study the photo and see themselves in the faces of the budding scientists. “This is the coming of America and this is why it is so important that you are represented in federal agencies and everywhere.”

This same sentiment was raised at the start of the lecture by NIH director Dr. Francis Collins, who said he is eager to have more Hispanic scientists at NIH.

“The future of biomedical research depends on the best and the brightest coming forward and deciding to work in this exciting area at this exciting time,” Collins said, adding that these new bright minds “come from all sorts of different backgrounds and we want to create a highway for those individuals to find their path forward and to become our next generation of innovators.”

To this end, Rodriguez has become something of an activist to get more Latino students engaged in science. He mentors as many students as he can handle from all backgrounds, but still sees the number of minority students lagging behind their majority counterparts.

“I talk to a lot of Chicano students, Latino students, and they say ‘We have no history in science, I’d rather go into business or something,’” he said. “I always tell them that the history of science goes way, way back even before the coming of the Europeans. We were already doing science here and everywhere else.”

He added, “By 2050, Latinos will be 30 percent of the population. There are major health disparities in the Latino population in the areas of prenatal care, cervical cancer, diabetic amputations and heart attacks. We cannot allow these types of health disparities to exist. We need trained scientists.” NIHRecord Icon


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