Traveling to a faraway continent isn’t something every child dreams about. But, for University of New Mexico alumna Maureen Meyer, Africa has always held a special place in her heart and mind. Now, thanks to the prestigious Fulbright Scholarship, that childhood dream will soon become reality.

“I have wanted to go to the continent of Africa since I was a little girl, but I didn’t know how it was going to happen,” said Meyer. “Now, as my research focuses on understanding the relationship that cultures have with their environment, specifically looking at medicinal plants and cultural perceptions of healing, the opportunity has arisen and I couldn’t be more excited.”

Meyer graduated from UNM in 2014 with a Master’s of Science in Geography. Her research focuses on ethnobotany, the study of the relationship between people and plants. She said her interests lie in how cultures use plants medicinally, particularly focusing on Africa and the African Diaspora.  

“There’s something about being in a different environment, outside of your comfort zone, to realize the humanity in everyone. And I think that’s very important.” - Maureen Meyer

Because of her interest in international research, Meyer said UNM professors and advisors have always told her she would make a good Fulbright candidate. With that encouragement, she looked for an organization to collaborate with and the research could be the foundation to apply for the scholarship.

Meyer found the Cameroon Association of Active Youths (CAMAAY), a non-governmental organization aimed at empowering local communities. CAMAAY was looking to start a project focused on the Moringa plant, a nutrient dense tropical/sub-tropical tree species that Meyer studied in Dominica while doing her master’s thesis. It was the perfect project she said, not just because of her research interests, but for the Fulbright application as well.

“As a small non-profit in sub-Saharan Africa, they don’t have a lot of money to fund me to conduct research,” she said. “So, I took the opportunity to apply for the Fulbright and see if I could get funded to go to Cameroon to learn and assist in creating a sustainable project based on the needs and desires of the community.”

Meyer will leave for Cameroon in August to start her research. She said she’s excited to learn more about Moringa in that region and find ways to help local communities utilize the plant.

Moringa leaves
Moringa leaves

“Moringa has been used for a very long time across the world and more recently has been getting a lot of attention as a plant that can be used to mitigate hunger and help with malnutrition,” she said.

Just about every part of the plant can be used, according to Meyer. Moringa is very high in vitamins and minerals, can be used to purify water and has numerous medicinal properties. The project will be developed collaboratively by working with farmers, women's co-ops and school children.

Right now, Meyer said she isn’t entirely sure what the scope of her research and subsequent outreach efforts will entail. Instead, she hopes to learn about how the plant is already being used and then work with the communities to figure out what else they can do with it. She hopes to be able to set up botany classes for locals and create a brochure in the local dialect that can be used to learn more about the plant and its uses.

Meyer will be living and working in Oku, a rural area in northwestern Cameroon. She said for her, this move isn’t simply about traveling and doing research, rather it’s an opportunity for her to live in a new culture and learn about the people; something she’s not only passionate about, but believes will help make her project even more successful.

“There’s something about being in a different environment, outside of your comfort zone, to realize the humanity in everyone. And I think that’s very important,” she said.

Meyer and her daughter Kaya
Meyer and her daughter Kaya

Meyer has traveled to various parts of the world within the past 17 years and now brings her 7-year-old daughter Kaya along on research trips. She said she’s excited for her daughter to be able to live on another continent and see the world with her.

The Fulbright will cover nine months of living and research expenses, but Meyer hopes to secure additional funding to be able to stay in Cameroon for several years.

“The fact that this is happening is a dream come true for me,” she said.

After graduating with her master’s degree in 2014, Meyer went on to teach a course in UNM’s Geography and Environmental Science department. She said even though she was done with school, she never stopped pursuing her passion; a drive that helped her become a Fulbright Scholar.

“Keep pursuing what it is that you love,” she said. “Because you never know where it will take you.”