A life of wisdom grown in the Amazon

Mark Plotkin with two Chiefs of the Tiriyó tribe, whom he has known for more than 30 years./Courtesy of the Amazon Conservation Team

3 min read

One of the world’s leading ethnobotanists was recognized this week at Harvard for his lifelong commitment to protecting the Amazon rainforest and its tribal communities. Mark Plotkin ’79, was honored in front of more than 500 guests with the Michael Shinagel Award for Service by Harvard Extension Alumni Association at its Commencement Banquet.

The annual event held in Annenberg Hall, celebrates the Harvard Extension School (HES) alumni community and their accomplishments. Plotkin, who co-founded the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT) in 1996, reflected on his time at Harvard as one of the most pivotal in his learning career. He previously served as Research Associate in Ethnobotanical Conservation at the Botanical Museum and has lectured on the travels of fellow Amazon explorer Richard Evans Schultes. Plotkin also co-taught the first Harvard course on rainforest conservation with Schultes at Harvard Extension.

“I knew I wanted to go on this path after my very first Harvard Extension class — taught by Richard Schultes,” Plotkin said. “Schultes inspired biocultural conservation as it’s done around the world today. Inspired by his example our team has been able to improve the protection of 80 million acres of ancestral lands in the Amazon.”

According to the ACT website, Plotkin “has spent almost three decades studying traditional plant use with traditional healers of tropical America.”

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He has also been the Director of Plant Conservation at the World Wildlife Fund, the Vice President of Conservation International, and Research Associate at the Department of Botany of the Smithsonian Institution.

The night also recognized two recent alumni with the Emerging Leader Award.

The award given to Wilson Vorndick, A.L.M. ’15, currently stationed in Africa as a Commander in the Navy Reserve, was accepted on his behalf by his father Bill Vorndick. Since graduating from Harvard Extension School, Vorndick has leveraged his expertise in China and advanced technologies on the Joint Staff, which advises the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon. He also co-founded the Washington, D.C. area Harvard Veterans Alumni Organization, which raises awareness for Harvard military veterans and veteran-related issues. Vorndick shared the moment with his wife and fellow HES alumna, Aline, A.L.M. ’15.

Award winner Nicolas Tejera, A.L.M. ’15, co-founded Boston-based Tolemi, a company which helps city governments manage their assets and data. Tejera and his company have helped dozens of cities across the country with their simple, user-friendly data analytics tool to help government teams trace neighborhood trends, deploy resources, and anticipate future problems.

Having been inspired by years of expanding his opportunities and interacting with different cultures Dr. Plotkin left the audience with this advice: “The world is in bad shape.  Take that perseverance, that dedication that got you to Harvard and through Harvard, and use your Harvard education and degree to make the world a better place.”