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What about the plants?! A merging of history and science

by YPU Admin on July 5, 2019, Comments. Tags: Bioscience, botany, history, HTSM, medicine, science, and technology

Introduction

My name is Jemma and I am a second year PhD student in the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (HSTM).  I took a somewhat roundabout route to this subject area. After finishing my A-Levels, I didn’t really know what I wanted to study at university. I enjoyed both Biology and Chemistry so ended up applying for Biochemistry at the University of Manchester in 2012. With a number of the bioscience degrees at Manchester, there is the option to do them as a 4-year undergraduate rather than the standard 3 – with the additional year being spent working in industry. By the time my placement year came around I realised that, whilst I found the theory and topics fascinating, I hated lab-based research. As a result, I chose to spend a year working at the Manchester Museum’s herbarium – the botany department of the Museum. My project with them centred on a 19th century medical collection called the Materia Medica, which contains plants, animal and mineral products that used to be employed in the teaching of pharmacy at Owens College (later this became the University of Manchester). I became obsessed! I changed my degree for my final year to Biology with Science and Society, which is basically a Biology degree with HSTM modules, and did my final year dissertation on the domestic use of opium (the plant extract which morphine comes from) by women in the 19th century. HSTM has been a great way to combine my love of history and science.

After my undergraduate degree, I received a 1+3 studentship to do my Masters and PhD in HSTM at Manchester. My Masters dissertation returned to the Materia Medica collection as I compared pharmacy education in Manchester and London in the 19th century. In 2018 I started my PhD, looking at the place medicinal plants had in 20th century pharmacy.

In Depth…

Pharmaceuticals drugs today are often presented as being created intentionally – often synthetically by chemical processes – and somehow separate from traditional medicinal knowledge. However, many drugs still have a basis in herbal medicine. So how did this perception come about? Why do we view modern drugs as being divorced from traditional knowledge practices? My research therefore focuses on medicinal plants, specifically within the context of conventional pharmacy, during the 20th century. It examines how plants were used as well as perceived following the rise of synthetic pharmaceutical drugs to present a more complicated history of drugs than a simple forward progression from traditional herbal knowledge of the 19th century to modern, synthetically produced drugs of the late 20th.

I really enjoy my research, but I don’t spend all my time just doing the PhD. I am a strong supporter of academics not just doing research but also engaging people with their work. I therefore split my time between doing my PhD and other activities (though with the emphasis on my PhD of course). Along with being a Widening Participation Fellow, I am a Heritage Guide for the University and still volunteer at the Manchester Museum’s Herbarium. At the Museum, I often get involved with their events as well as designing activities myself (such as an activity on medicinal plants used by the Romans - https://blogs.bmh.manchester.ac.uk/pharmacy/2018/11/02/manchester-science-festival-2/). I am also a big fan of interdisciplinary collaboration, having worked with members of the pharmacy department as well as artists on public engagement activities. My current project is setting up a podcast series, called In Pursuit Of Plants, dedicated to sharing cross-disciplinary research on medicinal plants – from history to biophysics – with the public. Along with other PhD students, I even co-organise conferences to promote interdisciplinary connections amongst Masters and PhD students at the University of Manchester. Whilst it is important to balance these so they don’t detract from my research, doing things beyond the PhD is very rewarding and a great way to get others excited about the topic.

Going Further…

Links to the In Pursuit of Plants podcast series and website can be found via our twitter page: @IPOP_Podcast

History of Science, Technology and Medicine is such a diverse field, to find out more about the types of research conducted in our PhD group check out our website: https://chstmphdblog.wordpress.com/people/

For a look at some of the public engagement I have done, you can read this blog post (plus see the final video!) of a collaborative project with a creative from Reform Radio: https://chstmphdblog.wordpress.com/2018/10/12/mixlab-2018-a-public-engagement-experiement/

You can also follow me on twitter for more on my research (plus lots of photos from the Manchester Museum): https://twitter.com/PlantHistorian

For more on the Biology with Science and Society with Industrial/Professional Experience see: http://www.chstm.manchester.ac.uk/study/undergraduate/