A life’s journey comes full circle for this woman in science

Published: Thursday 11th April 2019
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Ethnobotanist Narel Paniagua-Zambrana of Bolivia turned her dream into a life’s work; then something happened to cast her into the limelight

Dr. Narel Paniagua-Zambrana interviews a young Chácobo in the Bolivian Amazon as part of her PhD research on palm use (Photo by Rainer Bussmann)

Dr. Narel Paniagua-Zambrana got a glimpse of the course her life would take when she was a child growing up in mining camps in the mountains outside La Paz, Bolivia. Her father, a geologist, worked as an engineering supervisor in a variety of tin mines. One day, an equipment failure caused a tunnel to collapse, trapping her father and about 20 other workers inside the mountain. Fortunately, they were all rescued after two days – but not everybody she knew was so lucky.

“In the mines, the life is hard,” Narel recalled. “You never knew if your father would come out again. I had many friends who lost their fathers in these kinds of accidents.

“Always I was dreaming to do something to change these kinds of things.”

Life in the mines gave her a close relationship with nature and people – and a keen sense of what was required to help them:

I learned that education was the best tool to change the lives of people. Many of the workers in the mines worked there because they did not have the chance to complete their school education and thus had no other options than to engage in risky work.

Since then, she has transformed the dream of improving people’s lives to reality, navigating a path from agronomy to biology to botany and finally to ethnobotany, a branch of botany that studies a people’s traditional knowledge of plant use.

Narel shared her story with her colleagues at the annual AAAS meeting in Washington, DC, where she was one of five scientists to win the 2019 OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award for Women Scientists in the Developing World. They took turns telling their stories around the table while preparing for their presetations and the award ceremony.

Narel spoke with passion about her journey. Little did she know that in the weeks ahead, her story would take her places she never imagined.