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Medicinal Plants of the Southwest Project Lets Students Explore Science Careers

LAS CRUCES - Ancient medicinal plants are helping to attract the next generation of scientists at New Mexico State University.


Fourteen students spent a month this summer studying medicinal plants as part of the Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE) to interest minority students in science careers. The four-year project is funded by a $7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

"New Mexicans have used plants for medicinal reasons for a long time, and the Native American and Hispanic communities have a connection with them, so we thought studying these plants would help recruit students because it's something they know from their families and homes," said Mary O'Connell, an NMSU agronomy and horticulture professor coordinating the Medicinal Plants of the Southwest project.

In the four-week summer workshop, high school and undergraduate students did original research on plants with medicinal properties, working with faculty and staff across campus who volunteered to serve as instructors. The students' results will be shared with other scientists and posted on the World Wide Web. During the academic year, NMSU students will carry out follow up research in paying jobs on campus.

"These students are learning chemistry and biology, and I hope becoming interested in pursuing degrees in these scientific disciplines," O'Connell said. "And instead of performing recipe, rote laboratory procedures, the product of their work is information for the scientific community."

The summer students gained both hands-on and high-tech experience. They visited campus greenhouses to learn plant identification and mashed plants for their own herbal salves. In the chemistry lab, they extracted chemical compounds from yerba mansa (Anemopsis californica). Next, they did bioassays to see whether those compounds had antibacterial properties.

The students had access to the same equipment NMSU researchers use in their work. They examined plant structures under electron microscopes and used mass spectrometers to analyze plant compounds. In O'Connell's plant genetics lab, they worked with electrophoresis gels and amplified plant genes for further study.

"Medicinal plants are pushing into the forefront of science, and people can see some real learning opportunities and applications that can be gained from doing this kind of work," said Andrea Medina, an NMSU graduate student who helped organize the summer workshop.

The group included students with interests ranging from medicine to business.

"We have people who are not science majors who have really benefited from it, and it's for anybody, just to know about careers that are out there," said Melanie Sanchez, an NMSU biology major who wants to study biomedical engineering in graduate school.

The project will continue year-round for four years. An expanded, eight-week workshop is planned next summer for 30 students.

"We expect to look at more plants in more detail to measure the effectiveness of the compounds in plant extracts," O'Connell said. "So we are just going to make it more complicated." For more information about the project, contact O'Connell at (505) 646-5172.