Students studying outside the library

A Lesson in Paradise


How do you convince 17 students to take an Interim class in January where they will spend two weeks outside looking at plant species? Take them to Hawaii, of course.

The mere mention of the state brings to mind majestic rainbows, perfect weather conditions and crazy shirt patterns. But it wasn’t TV shows like Magnum, P.I. or Lost that gave Wofford professor Bryan Splawn the idea to visit our 50th state. It was actually a movie filmed somewhere else entirely.

The movie? Medicine Man, with Sean Connery. In it, Connery plays a doctor who has found a cure for cancer by isolating an elusive chemical compound found in the Amazonian rain forest, but the supply is in danger of being lost forever because of a local logging company. It had a profound impact on Splawn.

“That movie was in the forefront of my brain when I put this project together,” says Splawn. “It got me interested in this subject a long time ago. Nearly 40 percent of pharmaceuticals are made up at least partly of compounds found in plants. Yet we are barely scratching the surface when it comes to figuring out the medicinal values. There are so many different families of plants that haven’t even been discovered or defined yet.

“Hawaii has numerous arboreta/botanical gardens that are known to have medicinal plants. It’s within the (United) States but at the same time it doesn’t feel like it. We toured numerous rain forests and went to Harold L. Lyon Arboretum. We had a number of speakers from the University of Hawaii Manoa talk to the students about their research, seeking medicine from native Hawaiian plants, soy, and marine life.”

But, perhaps most importantly, the students got out and saw firsthand the plants that quite possibly could lead to medicinal breakthroughs some day, as seen by their itinerary...

“It’s amazing how many things can grow only in Hawaii because of the rainfall, the climate, the temperature, and the soil,” says Splawn. “The islands were created by volcanic eruptions from the ocean floor. There’s no telling what types of minerals and nutrients are rich in the soil there but not elsewhere.

“I wanted us to be on site and actually see the plants. I wanted them to recognize plant families just by looking at the structure…how many petals, sepals, stamens, and pistils are on the plant. We would read the textbook first, then see it firsthand. Then the tour guides would tell us their knowledge of each plant’s medicinal properties.”

The students loved it. So much so that they almost forgot where they were, if that’s possible.

“They loved the hikes, being outside in that environment,” says Splawn. “They got to read about the plants, hear the local folklore, see thhawaiisplawnem, touch them, taste them, and then come back home and experiment on them.”

Yes, they had to return home. But some of them couldn’t wait to come back and run tests on the things they had seen in the wild.

“They got to experiment on these plants,” says Splawn (pictured). “We extracted, isolated, and attempted to identify chemicals within the plants and fruits. Next year, our hope is to perform antibacterial, antifungal, and antioxidant tests to test for biological activity.”

Students were graded on class participation, daily travel journals, knowledge of two books, research papers on their experiments back at Wofford, and power point presentations. In short, this wasn’t a vacation, even if the students got to see some of the sights that make Hawaii famous, such as Waikiki and the U.S.S. Arizona memorial.

“It was fun, but it was fun with a purpose,” says Splawn. “Hopefully it’s a trip they won’t forget not just for what they saw, but for what they learned, too.”