Backing Traditional Knowledge with Biochemistry
Trent grad student uncovering scientific evidence of Guyanese plant’s medicinal properties
Growing up in Guyana’s agriculture sector, Ewart Smith developed an interest in forestry and ecology. As he completes his Ph.D. in Trent’s Environmental and Life Sciences (ENLS) graduate program through the Sustainable Guyana Program, Ewart is focused on gaining a deeper understanding of the structure and biochemical function of the capadulla plant’s medicinal components.
“The ENLS program lines up with my background and my passion for the environment, forest utilization, and conservation,” says Ewart. “It is also allowing me to focus on understanding the use of certain plants in traditional medicine and finding the scientific evidence to back those traditional uses.”
Through the groundbreaking partnership between Trent University, the University of Guyana, CGX Energy Inc. and Frontera Energy Corporation, Ewart is conducting this research both at Trent and in Guyana, where he will return to his position as a lecturer at the University of Guyana and help train the country’s next generation of experts in sustainable development.
Finding scientific grounds for medicinal use of capadulla
There are several capadulla species that grow across South America, which are known for their medicinal properties. Ewart will be focusing on Doliocarpus dentatus, the bark or stem of which is widely used as an aphrodisiac.
“Not a lot of research has been done on this particular genus, and we have no scientific evidence that supports the way in which it is being used or guides the amount that should be used,” Ewart explains. “My goal is to identify which phytochemicals are present in this species to get a better understanding of its biological activity.”
Ewart will return to Guyana for his field trials, harvesting samples in two geographical locations. He will bring the collected samples back to Trent for analysis in the state-of-the-art facilities in the Emery Lab, Water Quality Centre, and the Trent Centre for Biomaterials Research to determine if there is a difference in the phytochemical profiles of the different capadulla species.
“Through Trent, I definitely have more access to technology, such as the mass spectrometers in the Water Quality Centre, which will contribute to the depth of my investigation,” says Ewart.
He adds that the next step of his research, which will be conducted as post-doctoral studies back in Guyana, would be to conduct clinical trials to test the effectiveness of the phytochemical components he identifies.
Through this experience, Ewart is receiving mentorship from leading Trent experts, including Dr. Suresh Narine, director of the Trent Centre for Biomaterials Research and the Sustainable Guyana Program and the Ontario Research Chair in Green Chemistry Engineering, as well as Dr. Neil Emery, one of the world’s leading experts in the study of plant hormones. He will also receive guidance from the University of Guyana’s Dr. Raquel Thomas Caesar, director of Resource Management and Training at the Iwokrama International Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development.
Informing sustainable forestry in Guyana
“Participating in the Sustainable Guyana Program is giving me the opportunity to really build my knowledge in a particular field of sustainable forest management,” says Ewart, who looks forward to returning to the University of Guyana’s Forestry Department with newfound research skills and a broader network of fellow researchers.
“The knowledge I gain about this particular species and its medicinal use will allow me to inform decisions and policymaking on the sustainable use of this product in a way that benefits the rural communities who have been using it for generations.”
This story is part of a series of profiles of the first cohost of students in the Sustainable Guyana Program.
Learn more about how this collaboration between Trent University, the University of Guyana, CGX Energy Inc., and Frontera Energy Corporation, is empowering the Guyana’s next generation of environmental leaders.