Ina Vandebroek explores new worlds, new cultures and new plants.

Salsa Dancer

Ina Vandebroek takes off her lab coat and starts dancing.

30 Second Science with Ina Vandebroek

We give Ina Vandebroek 30 seconds to describe her science she says "I love it."

10 Questions for Ina Vandebroek

We ask Ina Vandebroek 10 questions and she dances with John Travolta.

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Ina's Behind-the-Scenes Journal

Ina shares her Secret Life of Scientists & Engineers memories with you.

When I first got the email from the NOVA scienceNOW team about “The Secret Life of Scientists,” I had just turned down a request from another production team asking me to comment on some weird behavior of animals after eating fermented fruits. Being a scientist, talking to the press wasn’t exactly at the center of my comfort zone.

Lately, though, something’s been nagging at me. The beneficiary of scientific research is the general public—you, me and everyone we know—or at least that’s the idea. Contemporary ethnobotany, for example, has been broadly described as a science that can “offer answers to many challenges that today’s society is confronted with.” Yet, more often than not, contemporary science seems disconnected from society. We scientists go to our scientific congresses, write our publications, and preach to a choir of believing disciples, our scientific peers. In the meantime, funding for scientific research is dwindling, and I believe that is—at least in part—because we don’t regularly engage with the public about what we’re doing and why it’s so important. As simple as it sounds, if people feel disconnected from science, then they won’t give money to support it. So, maybe it’s time that scientists descend from their ivory science towers and explore the outer limits of their comfort zones.

OK, so I did not go on the freaky animal and fruit show.

But I took my chances and came to the NOVA scienceNOW studio. As I entered the black studio box, my blood pressure went up slightly. Mark Siddall from AMNH was doing his thing with his leeches and he was no less than spectacular. A pro. For an instant, as I watched the crew shooting Mark and got drawn into the magic of the moment, I actually forgot to be nervous. But soon enough, they were back. My doubts. What could be more nerve-racking than filming videos free style with no rehearsing? What if I would stumble? Forget how to speak English? What if my European accent was terrible and no one could understand me? After entertaining all these thoughts for a while, I decided (hearing my mom’s voice in my head ever since I was a child): “this is going to be fun. Life is short. Just seize the moment and don’t think too much.” Then one of the assistants called me in. The crew was very professional and focused on their work, but at the same time laid back and very amicable, sending me the vibe that “we’re all in this together, don’t worry.” Even more importantly, they were genuinely interested in what I had to say. I started to get into the mood. This was fun. The rest is for you to see in the videos.

Let's Dance

Ina Vandebroek was our last interview at the end of a long day in the studio (we usually do three fairly intensive two-hour interviews per shooting day). Even though we were pretty tired, we knew Ina would do fine. We were confident she’d tell us the stories she’d already told us when we spoke on the phone during pre-interviews—she’d tell the stories well and she’d be an excellent addition to our series.

What we didn’t know was whether or not she’d salsa dance.

When we first asked Ina about sharing her “secret” by dancing on camera, it seemed to make her a little uncomfortable. She said something like “let’s see how the interview goes….” It didn’t sound particularly promising. Even though we really wanted that footage of Ina dancing, it felt like it wasn’t likely to happen.

Then at the end of our long day, at the end of our long interview with Ina, after she’d told us about her adventures in Bolivia, Belgium, and the Bronx, Ina decided to show us some of her dance moves. And it seemed like a gift. It had nothing to do with whether Ina was a good or bad salsa dancer (although for the record, she was good—you can watch the videos and see for yourself). And in the moment, it didn’t even matter that we were finally getting the footage we wanted so much. What was exciting about it was that Ina was sharing something that she hadn’t initially wanted to share with us. She was letting us in to see more of her true self (the kind of thing Rich Robinson talks about capturing with his photography). That was the cool part—and it’s one of the best parts of the work we do—sometimes our subjects become themselves—fully—right before our eyes. And even though we work in a field that’s all about preparation and planning (that’s why we do multiple phone pre-interviews with all of our subjects), someone like Ina can totally surprise us… even at the end of a long day.

So enjoy Ina’s videos, follow her links, and then feel free to ask her a question or two—about ethnobotany or salsa dancing—in the post below this one.

Ask Ina your questions

Ina Vandebroek travels to some pretty wild places to learn about plants and the people who use them as medicine. She’s also a salsa dancer, not to mention a poet and a photographer. How could you not ask her questions? See what she had to say below:

Q: I am a dance therapist and yet the use of my art form in therapy is stunted by overgrowth of other more traditional concepts. I am specifically thinking about the collaborative project in NYS to improve mental health of all children (ENGAGE). Your salsa dancing is such a good common denomenator for research, learning, healing, etc. How did you know? If you tell me, maybe I can be more effective in contributing to the project. I know the same, but you are successful in promoting the magic.

Ina Vandebroek (IV): I actually started the other way around, with research, and salsa came later. But I agree with you that salsa in itself is a great basis for study and learning, about another culture and about oneself. I guess my interest in salsa grew out of a deeply rooted passion for music and dance but I did not get involved until I started working on a research project with Dominican ethnomedicine at the New York Botanical Garden. While doing research on traditional practices from the Caribbean, salsa music caught my ears and eyes, and I loved it. I believe it is all about balance. Balancing science with art, or dance, or music. Perhaps you are already building on the research component of your dance therapy? Strengthening it from that angle might add to its effectiveness and open new doors. Best of luck with your endeavors!

Q: What’s your favorite subject on science?

IV: I’m really into learning more about how knowledge of medicinal plants is distributed within a culture. Not everybody knows the same, and I am interested in the variation in plant knowledge according to someone’s gender, age, status and other personal characteristics. Ethnobotany is by nature such an interdisciplinary science because it incorporates methods and concepts from both botany and anthropology that it will keep me busy for a long time. However, I am also interested in science other than ethnobotany. Before I became an ethnobotanist. I studied animal behavior and what goes on in the brain when an animal performs a certain type of behavior.

Q: Do you think there is or will be more of a substantive movement toward researching the use of plant sources in creating new therapies for cancer eradication?

IV: Natural products research into isolated plant compounds that are active against cancer has known its highs and lows. During 25 years until the early eighties the National Cancer Institutes randomly screened about 40,000 plant species (total number of plant species on earth has been estimated around 400,000). However, even though many antitumor compounds were identified, hardly any new drugs were developed from that screening. There are many reasons for this, including undesirable side-effects or high toxicity of an isolated compound. Therefore, very few compounds actually go on to clinical trials were they are tested in human volunteers and these trials are very costly. The use of information from ethnobotanical studies where plants have a long history of use in humans is considered a more cost and time effective method for the selection of plants for further study in the laboratory. However, this kind of ethnobotanical information should respect the intellectual property rights of the cultural group that holds information about the medicinal uses of plants, which leads us into a whole different kind of debate. Currently, biosprospecting for active plant compounds still takes place but at a much reduced scale in comparison with twenty years ago. However, the discovery of a new drug from a plant may well trigger the next wave of biosprospecting.

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