Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Faces of Ethnobiology: Michelle Joy Baumflek

Collecting Soil Samples from an Acorus site (photo taken by Suzanne Greenlaw)

My name is Michelle Joy Baumflek. I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and I am currently a PhD Candidate in the Department of Natural Resources and the American Indian Program at Cornell University. My PhD research at Cornell University focuses on incorporating biocultural diversity into forest management, and is based on the partnerships I developed in Maine over the last 6 years. I am focused on indigenous stewardship of 'wild' plants, and efforts to increase access to species that are culturally important for Maliseet and Mi'kmaq communities in Maine and as well as New Brunswick. Three terms that describe my work are: plant stewardship, access and health.
Because my research explores sociocultural and ecological aspects of human-plant relations, I draw on theoretical frameworks from several disciplines including ethnobotany, geography, anthropology and plant ecology. I employ a suite of mixed methods to answer my research questions: interviews, focus groups, participant observation, archival research, GIS mapping, habitat and social suitability modeling, vegetation sampling and herbarium research.

Ethnobiology is the natural culmination of my educational and life experiences. Growing up in Brooklyn, for as long as I can remember, all I wanted to do was get out of the city. My mother fed my curiosity about nature with frequent trips to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the NY Aquarium, and the undeveloped beaches near our house. I pursued a BS degree in Environmental Forest Biology, thinking that I would become a wildlife biologist. After graduating, I got to have several amazing field jobs, but I quickly realized that I was more fascinated by the plants I found in the landscape than the animals I was there to study. I became especially interested in how people use plants and began to expand my personal experiences with food foraging, which is now one of my passions!
The Mattawamkeag River, Maine
During my Master's Program at the University of Vermont, I was lucky enough to be given a research assistantship analyzing 20th century uses of non-timber forest products in the Finger Lakes National Forest in Vermont. As an avid plant forager myself, I remember thinking, 'Wow, I am getting paid to do this? That's incredible!' That experience led me to realize that I could build a career focusing on the interactions between people and plants that I was so inspired by and were such an important part of my life. I continued on this path as the Non-timber Forest Products Research Specialist at the University of Vermont, on a project that assessed culturally and economically important plants and fungi of northern Maine. It's hard to nail down to just one experience that makes my work special to me. I would say that what is most memorable about my work is all of the small, interactions that I get to have with people that are so meaningful on a personal level. Bringing my trusty field assistant along is a great way to start to get to know folks. 
My trusty field assistant

My immediate goal is to complete my dissertation this summer. After that, I am looking forward to building on my experiences with wild food and health systems in creative ways that are helpful to people and plants!
I am also passionate about teaching, and hope to continue to create curricular materials and courses related to ethnobiology and environmental conservation. I recently designed and taught a class called 'Culture and Ecology of Native American Food Systems' here at Cornell. I would like to continue to develop classes that span disciplinary boundaries to engage students with diverse interests.


  1. Michelle, you are awesome and I miss your smile, voice and thoughts about plants and people from one plant nerd to another. All the best and be in touch when you can. Erin Haney De Vries 802-999-2348

  2. Michelle, you are awesome and I miss your smile, voice and thoughts about plants and people from one plant nerd to another. All the best and be in touch when you can. Erin Haney De Vries 802-999-2348