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Student learns new medicines

Kate McClelland | Friday, March 14, 2008

Inspired by an International Summer Service Learning Program (ISSLP) two summers ago, senior Nathan Serazin returned to Ecuador this past summer to conduct research and compile a handbook detailing the similarities between traditional remedies and modern medicines.

“It grew out of my own interest in medical anthropology and biochemistry, but what really inspired me was the first hand experience that I received from talking to people in the community,” Serazin said.

During his time in the ISSLP, Serazin had worked at a village’s local hospital where patients often requested traditional remedies as a part of their care.

Unfortunately, the doctors’ limited knowledge resulted in them only prescribing more typical modern solutions for the patient’s health concerns.

Serazin’s goal for the following summer was to compile a handbook for doctors that would describe the plants used in traditional remedies and how those same plants are used in modern medicines.

His return trip to Ecuador was funded by a grant from the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, and Dr. Vania Smith-Oka of the Kellogg Institute aided him from developing a proposal all the way until the end of his project.

The relationships that Serazin built in the village of Pedro Vicente Maldonado during that first summer became invaluable upon his return.

“My research consisted mostly of interviews, so the people that I met during my first summer were incredible resources,” he said. “They would take me to the local healers and introduce me as a friend, which made the healers much more willing to speak to me about their remedies.”

Although his research is not connected with any particular class at Notre Dame, Serazin said his interest for medicine was kindled during his service trip.

“It grew out of my ISSLP – I wanted to take an academic view of the service opportunity that I had been given,” he said. “I wanted to make it a part of my everyday life back here at Notre Dame.”

Serazin recently presented his findings at the Human Development Symposium Feb. 23, and plans to make a presentation as a part of the Anthropology Department’s research expo in April.

His primary focus right now is on finishing the handbook, but he said that would like to continue working in the field of international medicine after the project is complete.

“I would like to continue to give back to the community in some form, whether through working in public health or international medicine,” he said. “I would like to continue studying how cultural issues can be considered when developing public health policy.”

Serazin’s summer research uncovered some important connections between culture and science. Ultimately he said he wants to help change the Western and American perception that traditional medicine has no value in an increasingly modern world.

“My research was an opportunity to understand what traditional medicine really entails, and how it goes beyond the ‘placebo’ effect that Americans often attribute to it and is very effective in many cases,” he said. “We have to learn to discount our own biases, or else we might be overlooking a source of effective treatment.”

Serazin himself knows through personal experience how effective traditional medicines can be.

“It worked on me,” he said. “I had a pretty persistent cough throughout the summer, and one of the healers finally asked me if I would like to try one of his rituals to get rid of it. And I did feel much better afterwards.”