In and out of the herbarium with Noorunnisa

A culture of mentorship sustained Noorunnisa Begum’s grand project, a rare herbarium of medicinal plants in India. Now she takes the same culture forward with her students.
Thsib is a featured image for article profiling botanist Noorunia
By | Published on Dec 26, 2021

Within 30 seconds of meeting Dr. Noorunnisa Begum S, I am introduced to the PhD students working with her –N. Arun Kumar  and R. Patturaj. She encourages both to speak, challenging them to talk about their research in clear and accessible terms. “What are you working on?” and “Why is it important?” are common refrains she employs to keep her students’ thinking about how they communicate their research interests.

Noorunnisa, a passionate botanist, plant taxonomist and conservationist, is an Associate Professor at the Centre for Conservation of Natural Resources in the University of Transdisciplinary Health Sciences and Technology (TDU), Bengaluru. Growing up amid biodiverse regions in Assam, Meghalaya, and Karnataka, she slowly developed a love for plant life through a life spent outdoors facilitated by family picnics and her mother’s love for gardening. So far, she has poured around two decades of research into the careful preservation of medicinal plants across the country. The result is a herbarium, a magnificent apothecary in the TDU campus, with rows of jars with delicate herbs, plants, fruits, and even metal or stone materials that are part of the medicine-making process. This herbarium, now almost three decades old, is also accessible virtually, creating an encyclopaedic repository of knowledge for anyone to access around the world. 

Noorunnisa’s achievements speak to her enormous love for botany, and to her tireless work ethic. But, above all, they speak to the power of mentorship and support, which was (and still is) uncommon for young Muslim women in STEM. She says, “I grew up in the 70s’ and 80s’ with my father in the Air Force and with a stay-at-home mother, who married my father at age 13. We were not well-off, but my parents spared no expense for my education.” Towards the end of her junior college years, her parents dealt with pressure from their community to find her a groom, but her mother resisted, “almost going on a hunger strike to make sure her daughter finished studying before marriage talks began again.” Her parents’ resolve moved her, pushing her to work hard at the sciences – a subject she was naturally inclined towards. Her resolve was further reinforced by several excellent teachers, starting from ‘Grace (C.D. Grace) ma’am’ in Kendriya Vidyalaya, IISC Bengaluru.  “She would take time out after school and on weekends, and come down to a student’s learning level to explain concepts, which is so important, especially when it comes to a subject like botany. As I continued towards further studies, my professors at St. Joseph’s College, Bengaluru and Sri Krishnadevaraya University continued this culture of teaching with care.”

Creating and maintaining a herbarium 

Though she devotes a lot of time to her students, Noorunnisa’s focus is on the rare medicinal plants herbarium – sourcing new samples through extensive field work, preserving delicate samples with great care and detail, and documenting them. The enormous amount of work involved creates a system in which each plant is a blueprint for its ecosystem — each herbarium sheet conveys its location, utility of the species, flowering months, fruit-bearing months. “Every sheet can tell you thousands of stories, ranging from climate to conservation status to location. A herbarium sheet can tell you that a flower blooms, say every fifteen months, but is blooming two months early in a specific location due to climate change.” She explains that the herbarium sheets show the phenology (life cycle events) pattern of a plant in a region. The study of herbarium data over the years across different herbaria providence information of changes in plant life cycles. 

  • A typical preserved plant in a sheet of hand-made paper with information below.

Unfortunately, several herbariums in India have now closed because they did not understand the magnitude of maintenance required to keep a herbarium running.

Noorunnisa got involved with the herbarium after her Masters degree; Darshan Shankar, educationist and the founder of TDU, proposed the idea of a herbarium for rare medicinal plants in India. “When I heard of it, internally, I remember laughing a bit at the sheer magnitude, thinking, kaise karenge…how will we do it? But, it got more believable as we kept working.”

“I also went to the Missouri Botanical Garden for an exposure visit, after which I thought…this is very much doable!”

However, running a  herbarium is not easy in the slightest. “There is an international standard and methodology created to maintain a herbarium, which is harder to follow in India due to climate differences and budget allocations. Institutes abroad can afford a temperature-controlled room to keep the plants safe, but here, we need a stronger processing and maintenance system. However, it is slightly easier to maintain the TDU herbarium due to favourable climate conditions.” She adds, “You process the plant sample with ethanol, dry it, and mount it on handmade paper. This is because handmade paper is acid-free and will last for a long time. Then, it is placed in the storage area called a compactor, after which fumigation occurs every six months. The plant specimen is then critically confirmed, labelled and digitised.” She sums it up — “This is like a baby. Going to the field, finding these plants — that’s very important. But maintaining the herbarium is equally important. Unfortunately, several herbariums in India have now closed because they did not understand the magnitude of maintenance required to keep a herbarium running.”  Plus, she adds, accessing funding for the maintenance of herbariums is also hard, leading to these closures.

  • Some medicinal plants, live and preserved, at TDU.

A passion for teaching, passed down by her teachers

Botany, according to Noorunnisa, is plagued by its unfortunate perceptions of being a dry science, a subject that receives hardly any  funding. She says the subject also holds negative gendered perceptions. “People believe girls who chose botany want to finish off college and get married – the subject and those who took it were not taken seriously at all.”  

The reason, she explains, is that people don’t consider botany a glamorous science with lucrative career options. “People perceive careers post botany as just teaching…that’s simply untrue. You can combine botany with medicine, biotechnology, climate science and many other fields. Think about this. You may know how to use tools in biotechnology, or you may know how climate change occurs, but what will you do when you’re in the field and you don’t know how to identify a plant? What do you do when knowing when a plant blooms is crucial to understanding how the ecosystem is changing? This is why knowing botany is increasingly crucial.” 

The need to make science accessible and to introduce people to the wonders of botany pushes Noorunnisa to teach. “Botany is seen as a dry science, because it is taught from a taxonomy perspective. If you teach Latin names only, there’s barely any interest. When you take the learner to the field, and make associations with taxonomy and the real world – that sparks interest. Cultivating this interest makes me passionate about teaching, and I do want to work on my skills and make myself a better teacher.” 

Botany is seen as a dry science, because it is taught from a taxonomy perspective. If you teach Latin names only, there’s barely any interest.

It is evident that she cares, because in conversation with a non-technical person (for example, me), Noorunnisa is always careful to use non-scientific terminology, or terms in an Indian language to help convey her research. Patturaj, a Ph.D student, is carrying out one-of-a-kind research on plant galls  (abnormal growths that occur on a plant’s leaves, twigs, roots, or flowers) in India. While attempting to explain the value of plant galls to me, both scientists realised that the terms were  becoming a little too technical. The plant in question is black myrobalan (Terminalia chebula) – terms I’d never heard of. Instead of leaving me to fend for myself, both scientists spend several minutes finding a way to help me fully visualise their point, arriving, eventually, at the Tamil name Kaddukai poo, which I am familiar with, making the concept instantly familiar, and less alien. It is a rare event to find plant taxonomists who care about the accessibility of science, considering how rare taxonomists are overall. “Today, there are very few hard-core field plant taxonomists in the country,” says Noorunnisa, “They are becoming endangered!”

As the herbarium grows, Noorunnisa hopes to create a self-sustaining, well-funded project. “At one point, we’d get a lot of government funding for projects, but right now, we’re left to earn our own revenue.” Even Covid19, which led to a lot of media attention towards the AYUSH ministry and their policies, did not lead to funding for this project, which catalogues medicinal herbs as described in Ayurveda, Unani and Siddha too. She adds, “See, botany is fundamental — without this foundation, there’s a lot lost. But with this foundation, there’s a possibility to create several pillars across different forms of research like conservation,  ethnopharmacology, geospatial systems,  satellite imagery and….just create something beautiful, you know?”

Noorunnisa Begum S with a preserved rare medicinal plant.

Acknowledgements: Season 6 is supported by contributors to our crowdfunding campaign, STEMpeers, and also by a grant from the Thakur Family Foundation. Thakur Family Foundation has not exercised any editorial control over the contents of this reportage. The featured image for this piece has been illustrated by TLoS season 6 artist, Ayesha Punjabi.

About the author(s)
Aditi Murti

Aditi Murti is an independent journalist reporting on environment, health and technology through the urban lens.