NIH Fellowship Supports a Student’s Research on Medicinal Plants in Haitian Women’s Health

March 30, 2022

Ella Vardeman is the fifth Biology Ph.D. student to earn the prestigious fellowship, which funds her study of an important public health issue for Caribbean women in New York City.

Ella Vardeman, a Ph.D. candidate in biology

Ella Vardeman, a doctoral candidate in Biology, has been awarded a prestigious fellowship from the National Institutes of Health to continue her research on medicinal plants used for Caribbean women’s health.

Vardeman knew she wanted to study medicinal plants when she joined the Ph.D. Program in Biology in 2019. “I also knew I wanted to work with medicinal plants for women's health, something I'm really passionate about,” she said.

Last month, Vardeman was bestowed with the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award Individual Predoctoral Fellowship for a project that specifically focuses on medicinal herbs used by Haitian women.

Her project, “Ethnopharmacology of Plants Used by Haitians in New York City for Women’s Health,” looks at plants such as Jatropha curcas — known as “piñón” in Spanish — and Argemone mexicana, or “cardo santo,” a plant from the poppy family. Both are used as antimicrobials to counter infections.

Vardeman says she’ll study the potency of traditional preparations of these and other plants, found in herbal shops and botanicas around the city. “Ideally, when you're using these plants, they’re killing off whatever bacteria or harmful pathogen is causing an infection,” she said. “But there are also other bacteria that are beneficial. They protect people from disease. So, if you have these plants — and not just plants, a lot of medicines out on the market for vaginal infections also do this — they’re targeting harmful microbes, but they’re also killing everything else.”

When these friendly microbes are eliminated, it can disrupt the balance of the vaginal ecosystem, she said. “If people are using these plants, what are the risks and benefits?” Vardeman asked. “Are they impacting harmful bacteria? If they are, that's great. But what are they doing to the beneficial bacteria?”

The project expands on the CarLo-E2 program, short for Caribbean and Latino Ethnobotany and Ethnomedicine, designed to train health care providers to be culturally sensitive when caring for Caribbean and Latino patients.

As a fellow, Vardeman will work closely with her mentors Professor Edward Kennelly (GC/Lehman, Biology) and Adjunct Professor Ina Vandebroek (Biology), who directed the Caribbean ethnobotany program at The New York Botanical Garden, a longtime partner of the Plant Sciences subprogram.

In 2021, Vardeman co-authored an article with Vandebroek in the journal Economic Botany that examined medicinal plant use for women’s health by Dominicans living in New York City and the Dominican Republic.

“This fellowship will allow her to dedicate more time to this research, which requires working with communities, establishing trust and building alliances. That is what ethnomedicine is about,” said Vandebroek, an ethnobotanist who now serves as a senior lecturer at the University of the West Indies. 

Vardeman is the fifth candidate from the Biology doctoral program to be awarded the fellowship. In a statement, Kennelly said it was a privilege to have mentored each one of these students. “In my 24-year tenure at CUNY, it has been an honor to mentor so many NIH Kirschstein fellows, and I am very pleased for Ella continuing this strong tradition in medicinal plant research at Lehman and The New York Botanical Garden,” he said.  


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