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Meet the Rough Scientists

Interview: Anna Lewington



Anna Lewington

What kind of scientist are you?
I’m sometimes described as an ethnobotanist — as I have made a study of the ways in which different peoples around the world use plants — but also as an economic botanist, since I also look at the extent to which plant products underpin not only most traditional societies, but our own modern economies and culture. To earn a living, I chiefly write about how people use plants (for food, medicine, clothing etc.).

How did you get to where you are today?
After leaving school, my first goal was to try and do something to help the plight of some of the world's most distinguished natural scientists — Amazonian Indians. I subsequently studied Spanish (and English) at Birmingham University, spending a year in Peru, before going on to do a Master's degree at St. Andrews in socio-linguistics. For my M.Phil thesis I studied the importance of the root crop cassava (Manihot esculenta) to the Machiguenga Indians of Peru. This deepened my respect and understanding of the complex systems of classifying and utilising nature, without destroying it, developed over thousands of years by indigenous peoples. Some time later, I began to write articles and books about the ways in which people use plants.

Who and/or what were some of the influences on you when you were at school/university?
The main influences on me whilst at school and at university were sociological ones. I was horrified to read reports of the genocide being waged against many of the native peoples of South America, and the destruction of their lands and forests. I felt that we could not ignore the basic human rights and extraordinarily refined understanding of peoples whose own scientific know-how had managed to discover not only the uses of such indispensable commodities as rubber quinine and cocoa, but to create and maintain the largest rainforest on earth.

Why did you choose to study science?
I studied science only as an addition to my main anthropological, linguistic and ethno-botanical interests. Though I am not trained as a taxonomist, I had to understand Western botanical classification and be able to record my own findings, including the collection and labelling of plant specimens for further study.

What other interests do you have outside science?
I’m interested in environmental and humanitarian issues around the world; the concept of self-sufficiency; Latin American culture and music; illustration and painting.

What answers would you like science to provide in the next ten years?
I hope that science will have been able to provide cures for our major diseases (probably with the help of chemicals from plants and other natural organisms).

Which scientist impresses you most?
Rather than scientists, I have been particularly impressed by anthropologists Stephen Corry,Andrew Gray and Marcus Colchester who have worked hard for the recognition of the right of indigenous peoples to self-determination, and by a number of ethno-botanists who have drawn attention to the very complex and detailed classificatory systems of native peoples.

What is your recollection of your first involvement in science?
The earliest recollection I have of my involvement in science is of being reduced to tears, at the age of 11, by an unsympathetic physics teacher who made the subject terrifying by not explaining anything properly.

What do you hope to have achieved by contributing to the ‘Rough Science’ TV series?
I hope to have helped raise awareness of the enormous importance of plants in our lives, especially as the objects of experimentation and use by people stretching back for thousands of years.

What would you like to be doing in ten years' time?
In ten years' time I hope that I'll still be writing, talking about and drawing plants, and growing most of my own food.

What was your most memorable experience while filming ‘Rough Science’?
There were many very memorable experiences on our castaway island. Included in these are discovering and experiencing the wonderful aromas of wild rosemary (one bush was probably hundreds of years old), myrtle, lavender and cistus species; discovering the different species of asphodel roots used in antiquity for their yellow dye and to make glue, and managing to extract some oil from the rosemary.

At parties, how do you explain to people what you do for a living?
At parties I usually tell people that I write about the ways in which different people use plants.

Why do you think that science sometimes has a bad press?
Perhaps science suffers from a bad press because it often appears to be driven by big business, to be unaccountable, secretive and unconcerned with the real welfare of the majority of the world's population.

Which aspect(s) of science frightens you most?
The aspect of science that worries me most is what appears to be a secretive, unethical and sinister intent to manipulate life on Earth for the benefit of a few large corporations, for example through genetic modification, instead of tackling the root causes of poverty and hunger which lie in political and monetary control.