Monday, February 11, 2013

Independent Research

By Ashley Ermann

This past week of our program in Australia was set aside for independent study/travel. We were each given a generous stipend and sent on our way to wherever we wished to go in order to conduct independent research. As part of this program we each get to carry out an independent research project that we work on throughout the first part of the program and then present to the group. Our schedule while we are here keeps us fairly busy, so this free study week really gives us the opportunity to get a lot of work done before we head to Brisbane to stay with our host families. The two main guidelines that we were given were that our project had to incorporate the theme of people and the environment and it should utilize the resources that are only available to us while we are in Australia. These loose guidelines for the project leave plenty of room for each of our own personal interpretations of the project’s theme. Being that I am a bio-chem major, I chose to focus my study on traditional Aboriginal medicine and its use in modern day Australia.

Most of the places that I wanted to visit for my research were within an hour of Sydney, so I decided to stay in central Sydney for the week with several other LC students. I really wanted to take advantage of being here in Australia, so I tried my best to find unique ways of doing research and collecting information rather than just sitting in a library all day. The first day of my independent study I took a trip down to Sydney Harbour and spent the day touring the Royal Botanic Gardens. I walked through a gate off a bustling street in downtown Sydney, and the difference between the two sides of the gate was like night and day. The minute I walked through the gate the noise of the busy city was drowned out by the noises of the birds and other wildlife.

The first thing I saw when I walked into the gardens was a gorgeous view of the Sydney Opera House and the harbour bridge. I wish I could have spent all day walking around the harbour and admiring the scenery, but my main purpose for going to the gardens was to take a tour of the herb garden and the Cadi Jam Ora exhibit (a display about the Aboriginal people’s first contact with the white settlers) because I had been told that both gardens had information on plants used by the Cadigal people (the Aboriginal people that lived in Sydney before the First Fleet arrived) as medicine. The displays were not disappointing. Both were impressive gardens with an abundance of information not only about bush medicine, but also about traditional medicine from all around the world. It truly amazed me how something that I just see as beautiful is something that the Cadigal people saw as a cure for a cold or a stomachache. A few of the more interesting plants I found were the corkwood (left), which was used as a sedative, and the round-leaved mint bush (right), which was used as an antifungal, antibacterial, and as a cold and headache reliever.

After I left the gardens, I stopped by Karlangu Aboriginal Art Centre, a nearby art gallery where there was a painting on exhibit by Gloria Tamerre Petyarre. The painting she had on display depicted the leaves of the clematis vine, which was used as a cure for headaches. I talked briefly with the gallery director about Gloria Petyarre and her work, and she gave me some valuable and interesting information. Gloria is the niece of the well-known contemporary Aboriginal artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye, and she, like her aunt, paints about bush medicine, women’s ceremonies, thorny devil lizard dreaming, and a few other themes. She has art on display at major art galleries and museums around Australia including The Art Gallery of New South Wales right here in Sydney. We had previously visited the gallery as a group, but I decided to go back to take a closer look at Gloria’s work. The painting below is very representative of her style of painting. It shows the leaves of an acacia blowing in the wind. The leaves from the acacia were traditionally brewed as tea and used to relieve cold and flu symptoms.  
Bush Medicine Leaves by Gloria Petyarre
Photo courtesy of
Though most of us would just look at paintings like the one above as art, they have more meaning for Gloria and the other women who paint about their traditional bush medicine. For the artists it is a way of preserving their knowledge about their land and their people that is in danger of being lost because of the colonization of Australia by the British.

Overall, the research week was pretty successful for me. I found a lot of useful information, and I got to see a lot of what Sydney has to offer as well. I can’t wait to hear about how other people’s research went now that we’ve all arrived in Brisbane! 

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