On Science and Culture with Teri Shors
By Raven Braun
|Sitha Thor and Terri Shors study plants in a greenhouse.
Teri Shors encourages students to take on research projects for reasons more than to bolster resumes. “They can learn things about themselves,” Shors said. “Some projects can really go beyond what one originally expected.”
That was certainly the case when Shors, a noted virologist, helped biology student Sitha Thor refine his research project into the antiviral properties of Hmong herbs, roots and plants. Shors is a professor in the Department of Biology and Microbiology at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. She is the author of Understanding Viruses and Encounters in Virology and numerous papers.
“I’ve always believed that students should work on a project that engages them,” Shors said. “As a mentor I try to help the students come up with ideas or projects that they will be excited about.”
Sitha approached Shors about the herbal “green medicine” that his parents and older relatives use to cure all sorts of ailments from sore throats to insomnia. “I have always seen my mother use plants,” Sitha said. “I asked Dr. Shors if she would know anyone I could ask to test some plants for medicinal properties.”
She encouraged Sitha to bring in plants and herbs from his family and test them for antiviral properties, her specialty. “His parents, instead of going to a doctor, they will go to a relative and say ‘I need some green medicine or some herbs.’ I thought for the next generation he could figure out all the names of the plants, what people used to use them for, and he can add the science to them.”
Sitha hopes his findings can aid future generations with Hmong medicine. “Dr. Shors had a great idea that if I work in her lab I can test these plants and eventually make a booklet for my children or even grandchildren,” said Sitha, adding that he would, in effect, preserve the oral information of his parents’ generation in a methodical and scientific way. Not only would this information be of use for the Hmong community, it would also serve as a resource to others about the uses of traditional Hmong medicine.
“I hope to find the structure of the actual chemical compound that inhibits a virus,” Sitha said. “I hope to learn more about the history of those plants.”
Once the project got under way, Sitha asked his relatives for plants, roots and bark. Some of the plants were brought from Laos and have lasted for more than three decades. “Every week he was bringing in five things and then 10 things and I’d say ‘Well, what is this plant?’ and he’d say ‘I don’t know,’” Shors said.
That’s when Thomas Lammers and Neil Harriman became involved. Lammers, an associate professor in the Department of Biology and Microbiology and Harriman, an assistant professor of biology, helped Sitha identify the plants.
“He knows Hmong common names for the plants, and there is very little literature in the world on Hmong botanical knowledge,” Lammers said.
Sitha now goes to the lab twice a week for several hours each day and sometimes weekends to test the plants against viruses. Of the 80 plants Sitha has brought in, he’s tested about 70. More than a dozen have shown antiviral properties.
Shors said Sitha’s research has significance beyond the hard science. “He’s contributing scientific relevance to traditional medicine used in Hmong culture,” Shors said. “Through all of these interviews he is also learning more about his family and who he is. His experience is priceless and may represent the highlight of his college years.”