Memory Elvin-Lewis


Ethnobotanist and Infectious Disease Microbiologist: Dr. Elvin-Lewis is an expert on evaluating traditional medicines and their use.

"Remember to have patience for technology to catch up to you and your discovery."

So You Want to Be a Ethnobotanist

The Lewises enjoy their work because they are often forced to learn a lot of new things. Bringing a drug out of the rainforest requires many skills. Besides a basic knowledge of biology, medicine and chemistry, the Lewises must be politicians, ethicists and entrepreneurs. There are legal aspects of intellectual property law that must be learned, as well as plant pathology (diseases of plants), genetic engineering, plant breeding, pharmacology (the study of drugs), viruses, microbiology and anthropology. “You learn to stretch your knowledge in every area,” says Dr. Lewis. Because of the many extra things you must learn along the way “it takes you all your life to get where you’re going,” adds his wife, Dr. Elvin-Lewis. She cautions that there are many 18-hour days and full seven-day work weeks, but she loves the travel and the excitement of living in the jungle with native people. The couple’s greatest challenge is finding enough money to bring these very valuable drugs out of the rainforest. “I feel very committed to the wonderful indigenous people we’ve been privileged to work with, and the trust they have in us so the world can benefit from their knowledge,” says Dr. Elvin-Lewis.

Walter Lewis enjoys the fieldwork, too. “It’s ‘work’ in a sense,” he says, “but I find it relaxing and enjoyable. I’m fortunate that my work is my play.” (Collecting plants is his hobby.) The things he dislikes about his job are report writing, committee meetings and administration. His advice to young scientists: diversify and explore many avenues. Don’t be too narrow in your studies.

Other scientists who may be of interest:

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