Saskia Wolsak

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The Ethnobotany of Bermuda: The historical relationship between people and plants on the tiny archipelago of Bermuda, from both an economic and cognitive perspective.
SSHRC Graduate Scholarships

Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?

After being an independent scholar for many years I chose to dive more deeply into a subject I care greatly about (ethnobotany), the goal being to stay abreast of the latest scholarly work in the field while learning research, writing, and teaching skills to better explore my interests and to share them more effectively with others.

Why did you decide to study at UBC?

UBC was the natural choice for my research. I grew up in the neighbourhood, even living in family housing for a stint when I was young. After 20 years of travel and research abroad I returned to my home terrain and became a staff member at the UBC Herbarium. Wanting to take my interest in plants and people further, I decided to research the graduate programs at the school. The Interdisciplinary Studies program was exactly what I needed, providing me the latitude to take courses in the divergent fields relevant to my discipline.

What is it specifically, that your program offers, that attracted you?

My program allows me the flexibility to take courses in both the sciences and arts, as ethnobotany is an interdisciplinary field. It also allows me to meet other interdisciplinary thinkers with whom I have a surprising amount in common, though their fields may differ greatly from mine.

What was the best surprise about UBC or life in Vancouver?

The best surprise about UBC is the intelligence and availability of the professors and the brilliant minds of my fellow students.

What aspect of your graduate program do you enjoy the most or are looking forward to with the greatest curiosity?

I most enjoy having my mind stretched and opened by fascinating courses and new perspectives, and - though stressful - I enjoy having deadlines that force to me think on my feet and accomplish what would be difficult to accomplish without them!

What do you see as your biggest challenge(s) in your future career?

Being in the relatively niche field of ethnobotany I think that finding like-minded others to work with will be my greatest challenge.

How do you feel your program is preparing you for those challenges?

My program is encouraging me to be a public scholar and write and research for the general public rather than just for academia, thereby encouraging me to establish the relevance of my field and interest in a broader context.

What aspects of your life or career before now have best prepared you for your UBC graduate program?

My many years of independent scholarship and exploration have helped me to stay focused on my own perspective in conjunction with what I'm learning rather than getting too caught up in the many lines of thought and details offered in the coursework. I find that being able to return to my original insights and inspirations - and the desire to share them - encourage me to persevere when the reading load, assignments or exams threaten to overwhelm. Having a heartfelt purpose for my studies, for me, is vital.

What do you like to do for fun or relaxation?

Fun for me includes reading novels, taking photographs, learning new plants, hiking, exploring, traveling, playing music, and spending time with my friends and family.

What advice do you have for new graduate students?

Be aware that navigating the university's bureaucracy is half the battle in your first semester; allow plenty of time to do that, and ask fellow students for help!


Learn more about Saskia's research

Ethnobotany is the study of the relationship between plants and people. It encompasses almost all aspects of life, including food, medicine, mythology and religion. Bermuda’s ethnobotany has had a lasting influence on world history. Its now threatened endemic juniper was used for centuries to build ships that outcompeted all others in a world of piracy and trade. Hats made of the endemic palmetto became a fashion rage in 18th Century England, providing this oldest British colony with much needed income. Yet there are other less famous but equally essential areas of plant knowledge buried in the island’s history and alive in her people today. Settled in the 1600s as a hub of Atlantic trade, the island became home to African, Algonquin, British, Irish, Portuguese and West Indian settlers. Dominated for centuries by slavery and colonial rule, most of these people’s contributions to the island’s uniquely blended culture have been largely overlooked. This study will be a rediscovery and celebration of African food that travelled across the seas, Celtic herbs that appeared in every kitchen, and shipwright skills that were passed through generations. As an interdisciplinary field, ethnobotany both strengthens cultural roots and revitalizes a connection to nature. While Bermuda is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, its wilderness is among the most imperiled. Conservation cannot be the work of the few, but must involve a whole people. This project will approach Bermuda as a social-ecological system, highlighting the often overlooked interwoven nature of a people and their land.