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USA Science & Engineering Festival – Role Models in Science & Engineering Achievement

Eloy Rodriguez

Eloy Rodriguez -- Plant Biologist

Leading authority on ethnobotanical medicine (applying the benefits of natural plants to healing and disease prevention). He also coined the concept and study of zoopharmacognosy, the process by which non-human animals (such as apes) self-medicate by selecting and using plants, soils, and insects to treat and prevent disease

Cited in books and passed down for centuries, plants have been used for ages by many ethnic cultures to treat infections, cancer, diabetes, malaria and other illnesses. "In Mexico, for example," says Eloy Rodriquez, a leading plant biologist, "over 500 plants are used for the treatment of diabetes. And they're still using the same plants that were used from the time of the Aztecs and before."

Eloy's ethnic roots run deep in both Mexico and America. Growing up in a large family that included some 67 first cousins, he was born and reared in one of the poorest regions of south Texas, an area he calls "Chicano Land" where he spoke English, Spanish, and a blend of the two languages known as Spanglish.

As a young man, he struggled to make ends meet, resorting often to picking fruits and vegetables for a living. "It got so that I began to hate plants," he recalls with a laugh, "but little did I know that I would one day make my living studying them." His love of plants began to take shape when he entered the University of Texas as an undergraduate where he would major in Phytochemistry and Plant Biology -- disciplines which allowed him to delve into the areas of chemical biology. ecology, medicinal chemistry, and toxicology of natural small molecules and glycoproteins from plants and arthropods.

He also later became an astute student of ethnic history, particularly as it relates to how various cultures have used plants for healing and to treat illness. "Did you know the Chinese were using penicillin 5,000 years ago?" he likes to ask students. "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."

He also emphasizes 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.

Why He's Important: Eloy Rodriquez, currently the James Perkins Professor of Environmental Studies at Cornell University, is one of the nation's leading plant biologists specializing in ethnobotanical medicine (applying the benefits of natural plants to healing and disease prevention, particularly in treating viruses, bacteria, and perhaps even the AIDS virus). He believes that many natural compounds and the plants themselves could prove especially useful for treating both humans and animals in Third World countries where parasitic and bacterial infections are endemic.

His research has been transformed into a widely-delivered undergraduate course and research program devoted to applying pharmacognosy, pharmacology and nutritional biochemistry of natural substance to the control of diabetes type 2, and breast and pancreatic cancer in underrepresented communities in the US and Mexico. He has also devoted considerable time and effort to the training of hundreds of underrepresented undergraduate and graduate minority and majority students in these sciences at Cornell University and the University of California, Irvine. Says Eloy: "A plethora of these fine young women and men at Cornell and UCI are now medical doctors, health specialists, research Professors, pharmaceutical scientists, biologists and environmental ecologists."

Other Achievements: Eloy is also known for collaborating with Harvard primatologist Richard Wrangham to coin the concept and study of zoopharmacognosy, the process by which non-human animals (such as apes) self-medicate by selecting and using plants, soils, and insects to treat and prevent disease. This phenomenon was first observed by the famous primatologist Jane Goodall in Africa when she witnessed chimpanzees eating certain bushes to make themselves sick; and substantial evidence later indicated that they swallow whole the leaves of certain rough-leaved plants, such as Aneilema aequinoctiale, to remove parasitic worms from their intestines.

Eloy is also the director of the Cornell University Esbaran Amazon Field Laboratory located in the Amazon Rainforest near Iquitos, Peru, and founder of the California Alliance for Minority Participation (CAMP) program funded by the National Science Foundation. As a result of his leadership, the CAMP program spread from its home campus at the University of California-Irvine, to the 9 other branches of the University of California.

Education: Eloy graduated from the University of Texas, Austin with a Bachelor's of Science degree in 1969 in Phytochemistry and Plant Biology, and earned his Ph.D. in the same disciplines in 1975. Later, at the University of British Columbia, he received medical postdoctoral training in Medicinal Botany. He was an Assistant Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California, Irvine from 1976 to 1994 before joining the faculty at Cornell.