Research for fellowship sends teacher to Alaska

Jeff Walter wandered through some wild berry patches this summer, but he wasn't on vacation.

The world history teacher was way up north in Alaska, researching berries and other plants and how they are used as medicine in native cultures.

Walter recalled an 88-year-old Alaskan native elder who showed him a helpful plant: "He said, 'My mother would make tea from this plant whenever we had an upset stomach.' "

Despite generations of knowledge in Alaska, native wisdom is being lost as younger generations transition to a Western diet, Walter said.

His trip was part of his Kenan Fellowship with Dr. Mary Ann Lila. Lila is Walter's Kenan mentor and also director of N.C. State University's Plants for Human Health Institute at the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis.

N.C. State offers the competitive Kenan Fellows Program for Curriculum and Leadership Development to teachers.

Eventually, Walter's work will benefit his students at Gray Stone Day School, a state charter school in Misenheimer. He's developing a curriculum to help them see the connection between the course of history and science and technology.

One focus, he said, could be the tension between Western science and traditional knowledge, as plants, berries and leaves are used for healing in native medical practices around the world.

Lila echoed Walter on how traditional ways in Alaska are fading away.

"Elders are feeling like the youth don't really appreciate traditional knowledge. They would rather go to McDonald's," she said.

Lila's research team studies specimens that are a world apart from cheeseburgers and fries, such as wild blueberries, which are the only edible above-ground plant north of the Arctic Circle. Because the berries grow under extreme weather conditions, including permafrost, they are "jam-packed with compounds you don't get in well-developed berries," Lila said.

At the research campus, her team studies a wide range of plants helpful to human health, including wild berries and Devil's Claw, a weed that can fight off illness and infection. Walter has been shadowing the lab staff as they extract fluids from fruits, examine plant compounds and study how fruits and vegetables can improve human health.

Walter, 33, graduated from Mount Pleasant High School in 1995 and earned his bachelor's and master's degrees at UNC Chapel Hill. Thanks to the fellowship, he will bring science and technology into his classroom to help students understand how science can shape a society, such as the native populations in Alaska.

"To be able to relate these things they learn in science class, and how it all fits together ... that's what I ultimately want to do ... to have students make that connection."