SRF: Ten Years of Taking Pharmacy Students to Find Their Roots

Daniel T. Wagner, RPh, MBA, PharmD
Published Online: Wednesday, February 1, 2006

THE STUDENT RAINFOREST FUND (SRF) started with a novel idea. In 1993, I was most fortunate to be part of an international team of health professionals who set off on an unprecedented expedition to the Amazon rainforest of Peru. The group was organized by the American Botanical Council, an herbal research and interest organization from Austin, Tex. The trip was called ?Pharmacy from the Rainforest,? and afforded American pharmacists the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study natural products and medicinal plants in the world?s greatest pharmacy?the rainforest.

This initial rainforest trip for pharmacists had faculty world-renowned in their knowledge of ethnobotany and herbal medicine. The late Varro Tyler, PhD, was one of the lecturers for the group. Joining him was James Duke, PhD, author of The Green Pharmacy, noted ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin, PhD, famed natural-medicine healer Rosita Arvigo, DN, and Mark Blumenthal, president and founder of the American Botanical Council.

Upon my return, I found myself looking at the professional practice of pharmacy in a new light. Although I owned and operated a successful independent community pharmacy located north of Pittsburgh, Pa, I started yearning for ways to look at my practice in a natural way. Within a year, I had decided to make this unique rainforest experience a bigger part of my practice and my life. Late in 1996, I decided to sell my independent pharmacy after 17 wonderful years to a chain drug store. I opened an all-natural pharmacy that would be more dedicated to selling quality herbs, vitamins, and botanicals, and integrating these dietary supplements with prescription and over-the-counter drugs in a safe and efficacious manner. I named the new concept ?Nutri-farmacy,? coined from a lecture I attended in the Amazon by Dr. Duke entitled, ?Food Farmacy.?

My sincere desire was not just to alter my personal practice, but also to find away to give pharmacy students a grand opportunity to experience firsthand, as I did, the wonder and awe of the rainforest, the source of many of the drugs they would one day dispense. I needed a plan and a partner. My former college professor, Norbert Pilewski, PhD, RPh, was still teaching pharmacognosy and alternative medicine at Duquesne University?s School of Pharmacy. He was a friend and colleague, and I knew he would be the perfect partner to get the university faculty interested in my plan.

Within weeks, Dr. Pilewski posted a notice on the bulletin board at Duquesne University?s School of Pharmacy about our first SRF trip to Belize to study medicinal plants and natural products with internationally-known natural doctor and herbalist Dr. Arvigo.

That precedent-setting trip to Belize was extremely satisfying and fulfilling to students and faculty alike. The students spent 3 days of intensive fieldwork with Dr. Arvigo. In the early years, the students participated in an important plant collection in the forest for the benefit of the National Cancer Institute. Dr. Arvigo was assigned to oversee an 8-year collection of Belizean plants that would be scrutinized in the laboratory for possible anticancer activity. It was a most rewarding project for the students to participate. Working alongside many wonderful traditional healers over the years has been one of the hallmarks of the trips.

During the 8-day expeditions, students always had time for some fun and exploration. In Belize, the students routinely visited the mysterious Mayan ruins that are commonly found around Belize. The ruins of Xunantunich, Caracol, and Cahal Pech were frequent stops on our itinerary. Sometimes, the groups had the chance to visit the Jaguar National Forest located in the central part of the country or the Pine Ridge Forest along the Guatemalan border. Others have traveled far south to the city of Punta Gorda and have had a chance to swim in the pristine ocean and snorkel in the barrier reefs.

As the years went by, more universities and colleges of pharmacy got involved in the program. To date, students studying pharmacy, medicine, botany, and naturopathy have been represented from over 25 schools. A few schools of pharmacy have approved the SRF program as a rotation choice to fulfill their doctorate of pharmacy degree.

In 2004, after 8 consecutive years visiting Belize, the SRF team traveled to Costa Rica. The largest group to date (32) spent 3 days at the famous Wilson Botanical Gardens near the east coast. This garden is the largest in all of Meso-America. For the first time, we worked closely with the Organization of Tropical Studies (OTS), an international environmental organization committed to student education and the preservation of medicinal plants.

In June 2005, SRF embarked on their most ambitious expedition to date?a journey to the vast Amazon rainforest. A team of 20 set out for southern Peru on a 10-day expedition. This trip had many memorable moments, and the response from the students was hugely favorable. Most often cited was the quality time we spent with the famed Amazonian shaman, Don Antonio Montero. Don Antonio was our guide as we walked through the rainforest trails along the Madre de Dios River. He took us to his ethnobotanical garden located near the port city of Puerto Maldonado. Our journey to the 12,500-ft-high city of Cusco and the ancient Inca city of Manchu Picchu was pure magic.

Ten years after that novel idea, the SRF is still providing college students with an opportunity to explore the natural history of medicine and evoke the healing edge of knowledge regarding natural products and phytomedicinals in the rainforest. The students benefit from a more holistic approach to the healing of body, mind, and soul by learning from unique practitioners. They gain an invaluable international perspective by working with indigenous peoples from different cultures.

Since its inception, the SRF has assisted over 225 college students to make this annual expedition to the rainforest, the vast majority of the voyagers having been pharmacy students. The Board of Advisors of SRF is an impressive group of individuals dedicated to the proliferation of medicinal plants and the preservation of these treasured forests.

After 10 successful years, we believe that SRF is coming of age. Plans are in the works to add a second trip each year and travel to new locations including Cuba, Suriname, Panama, and Africa. No other student program exists in the United States similar to the SRF program. We are independent of any particular university, individual, business, and/or foundation mandate. We truly cherish and need their input, donations, and participation. And so, the adventure continues.

Please visit www.nutrifarmacy.com for more information.

Dr. Wagner is the president and founder of the Student Rainforest Fund and owner of NutriFARMACY, located in Wildwood, Pa




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