November 3, 2019
When Briana Gonzalez had a stomach ache growing up, her mother would prepare a stew infused with cilantro, an herb native to the Caribbean. Claudia Melo’s family, from the Dominican Republic, made tea from the leaves of guava plants, to aid indigestion. Rosemary Perdomo learned in her travels to South Africa how Ethiopian pepper is used to treat asthma and other ailments. Anna Miller’s mother prepared a butternut squash sage soup, believing it had medicinal value, and Savinoz Sayfillaeva’s parents, who are from Uzbekistan, treated their daughter’s flu symptoms with a rhubarb dish.
Do these plants actually provide health benefits? Working closely with BMCC Science Professor Adolfina Koroch, the four science majors are investigating that question. Standing side by side in BMCC’s expansive Core Lab, they work as a team grinding plant samples, preparing extracts with various solvents, and determining the amount of phenolics and flavonoids — indicators of medicinal properties of the plant.
“The amount of phenolics and flavonoids is determined using a spectrometer,” says Koroch.
Phenols can repel or kill microorganisms that might harm the plant, she explains. They can also create a defense against ultraviolet radiation. Ingested by humans, plants rich in phenols can act as an antioxidant, and provide some protection against diseases.
Research enabled by an open mind
As the students learn biochemistry, plant science and research protocols, they are also learning how to build and be part of a research community.
“I love working with Professor Koroch,” says Gonzalez. “From her I learned to be patient in the lab. Not just with the results, but with the materials, with the co-workers, and the methods — to be very respectful of the results and everyone working in the lab.”
The learning curve is both technical and social. “It’s hard when you start but the more practice you build, the better you get,” she says. “Then it gets to the point where you don’t want to leave the lab. We start collaborating and sharing ideas, listening to each other and talking about our results. The hypotheses we started with, evolve as our research continues to give us more information.”
Perhaps even more importantly, she says, “When I first went into the lab, I really just wanted my thesis to be true. But as time went on, as I tried new protocols and methods of conducting the experiment, I realized what I wanted even more was just to test the plant as much as possible and to open my mind to whatever we might find.”
“The environment we have created in the BMCC Core Lab is a community,” Koroch says. “In general, the students start with a simple guiding research question that they develop themselves. They collect literature in their area of interest and write an abstract. As the research progresses, they engage with the question in a more complex way.”
While starting with a personal connection to the plant they are investigating, the students are also building context for their work — in history and across cultures.
“Seventy to 80 percent of people living in rural areas around the world rely on plants to address symptoms of illness and for healthcare,” says Koroch,who holds a Ph.D. in Biological Sciences from the National University of Cordoba, Argentina, and started her career researching the physiology of endangered plants in that region.
Applying passion to scientific investigation
“I wanted my career path to be medical school, a traditional path to being a doctor,” says Gonzalez. “Now I’m leaning toward research and getting hands-on experience testing different plants, and writing and publishing articles on food science.”
Rosemary Perdomo wants to enter the field of diagnostic imaging and to research and help develop new applications of healthcare technology, while Claudia Melo says that once she graduates from BMCC, her goal is to obtain a bachelor’s degree in biology with a minor or dual degree in chemistry, and then to purse a Ph.D. in plant science at the New York Botanical Garden.
“This will allow me to apply my passion for plants, science and research to find chemicals in plants that will ultimately help me understand how we can use plants to improve human health and wellness,” she says.
So far, the students’ research shows evidence that due to the high concentration of certain chemicals, the leaves in the plants they are studying are capable of antioxidant and other health-guarding activity.
“The results helped me understand the traditional uses of guava leaves in the Dominican Republic and the health benefits it may provide,” says Melo. “When I was little, I dreamed about a world where humans lived long lives. By studying plants, I believe humanity is closer to one of my dreams.”
This article is part of the 2019 Marks of Excellence, an annual publication from the Office of Public Affairs that highlights the outstanding accomplishments of students, faculty and staff. This issue features research projects at BMCC. Please note, the stories will be posted throughout Fall 2019 as both a BMCC News version with video, and a flip-book version.
- Working closely with Science Professor Adolfina Koroch, BMCC science majors are investigating the health potential of plants
- The students are focusing on plants their families used as they were growing up, for stomach aches, the flu and more
- They are learning biochemistry, plant science and research protocols