When someone thinks of the forest, they’re often limited to only think about the trees and the animals that live in them.
Baillie Redfern, an MSc student in the University of British Columbia’s Genome Science and Technology Program on the other hand, sees medicines.
Growing up on Rural Route #3 on ¾ sideroad, and a member of the Painted Feather Woodland Métis Tribe in Ontario, Baillie and I recently discussed her education and how it relates to the forest products industry.
Can you tell us a little bit about what you’ve been studying?
Baillie: I work in the field of medicinal plant genomics–specifically I work on bio-products from balsam fir. Coniferous trees are a rich source of metabolites that can be used to make higher value bio-products. To address the significant market demand, there is a large scientific interest in the identification of the genes and enzymes for the production of natural products with cost effective technologies.
Prior to attending UBC I was studying Biopharmaceutical Science at the University of Ottawa. While studying in Ottawa I had the opportunity to work with The Cree of Eeyou Istchee (CEI), a James Bay subpopulation of the Cree Nation, which is Canada’s largest Aboriginal group. The CEI possess a wealth of traditional ethnobotanical knowledge and continue to use medicinal plants today. I worked collaboratively with the elders and Cree Health Board to investigate traditional plants to treat diabetes. It is estimated that 20% of the Aboriginal population lives with diabetes and the prevalence of Type 2 diabetes is three to five times the national average. My research focused on the safety and efficacy of traditional medicines for treating symptoms associated with diabetes.
Do you feel that there is a connection between your academic work and your identity as a Métis?
Baillie: Yes! However, there is not a direct connection. For example I am not investigating which trees make the best fiddles. Rather, I am defining what it means to be Métis to myself, my family, my community and the non-Aboriginal population by participating in a non-traditional field of research.
I want to show everyone that Métis culture is not dead, static or stereotypical. The Métis Peoples are diverse, strong and proud with a history and a future. I am a woman, Métis and a Bioengineer.
What makes the forest products industry so appealing for you?
Baillie: Medicinal plants have been used for centuries as remedies for human diseases because they contain phytochemical components of therapeutic value. They have been used by humans for their beneficial role in the pharmaceutical and food industries and can be found as the active principal component in many natural health products. Plants represent a great source of novel leads for product development which is why I think it is important to investigate these chemical sources and understand the relationship different cultures posses with specific plants.
Where do you see yourself going after you complete your degree?
Baillie: My goal is to open a health and wellness center which integrates modern medicine with traditional Indigenous medicines. The current heath care infrastructure views modern-western practitioners, traditional healers and naturopathic doctors in opposition of one another, when in-fact they all strive to bring better health to the population. Currently, there’s a deficit in the health care system; it devalues the importance of diversity of medicinal knowledge.
I want to develop a health center that will be the standard for heath services in the 21st century. The health center will be a place where all people can get modern medical services, with informed access to traditional medicines while experiencing a culturally respectful environment.
What was it like being the first person awarded the Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC)’s annual Skills Award for Indigenous Youth, and how do you think the award will help you in your future endeavors?
Baillie: The award has connected me with a number of people who work in the forest products industry and recognized my own contributions to the field at the post-secondary level. Thank you to everyone at FPAC and their member companies.
And finally, I have to ask, what species of tree is your favourite, and why?
Baillie: The Sugar Maple Tree, because it’s where my dad attached the old tire swing above the river.
Photo credit: Eli Sagor