Staff profile

Steve Corbett: Manager, Prairie Ethnobotany Database

Steve is, by his description, “not much of a talker.”

“I’m a much better listener,” he said. “As an anthropologist, that’s very useful. Usually, I just let other people come in and talk to me. It’s useful if you’re trying to learn something about people. About populations and population dynamics.”

Steve’s fascination with the ways in which people interact with each other and the environment touches all parts of his life. In his research, he’s spent time on Native American reservations studying the residents’ eating habits and their effect on diabetes rates. At work for the KU Native Medicinal Plant Research Program, Steve manages the Prairie Ethnobotany Database, which houses research results from the study of various native plants with medicinal potential. Even outside of work, Steve’s anthropological interests come into play.

“I guess I’m kind of a nerd,” he said. “If I read a book, it’s anthropological. I haven’t read fiction in I don’t know how long. If I’m interested in going somewhere, it’s usually a museum. Most people go shopping when they go out of town, but I want to know, what museums do they have?”

Steve planned his life this way, so that work could be play and play could be work. “I just couldn’t deal with the idea of working eight hours a day doing something I didn’t like,” he said.

As a medical anthropologist working on what he hopes will be his last year of a Ph.D. program at KU (he started the program in 2005), Steve’s years of work in his chosen field are proof that he loves what he does. His interest in history and anthropology began long before his research career started.

Steve was born in Kansas. Though his family moved around the country during the early part of his life, he landed back in his birth state before he was 10, and he’s lived here ever since. He was interested in the concept of evolution from an early age. Steve’s grandmother is a historian who has written entire books about her family’s history, and Steve credits her with his passion for history.

Steve started his undergraduate work at KU, where he met Anthropology Professor Sandra Gray, a major professional influence in his life. As one of his early professors, she played a part in his decision to major in anthropology. Steve went on to do his graduate work at KU as well, where he earned a master’s degree in physical anthropology. His thesis focused on the health and diets of the Turkana, a pastoralist culture in Kenya. His Ph.D. will be in medical anthropology.

“Medical anthropologists are usually interested in cultural healing systems and cultural definitions of health and wellness,” he said. “If you’re a physical anthropologist, then it’s more biomedical stuff like human adaptation to disease. I kind of do both.”

A large part of Steve’s research has taken place on Native American reservations. While working as a senior research associate at The University of Kansas Medical Center, he cooperated with the Potawatomi and Kickapoo tribes in Kansas on a project designed to prevent obesity and diabetes among tribal members.

Later, he worked for the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation at their tribal clinic on the reservation north of Topeka, Kan. Steve served as the Diabetes Project Manager there, and he received a $500,000 grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study how traditional native foods could be used to prevent diabetes within those populations. Kelly Kindscher, who co-leads the Native Medicinal Plant Research Program’s team, was a consultant on that project.

For two weeks in June, Steve participated in the Kansas Anthropological Association’s 2010 Kansas Archeological Training Program. The program excavated a prehistoric Native American site. Steve’s work focused mostly on attempting to recover small seeds and plant materials from the site’s soil. The Native Medicinal Plant Research Program helped fund his participation in the excavation, as did KU’s Unclassified Staff Professional Development Fund and a Carlyle S. Smith Award from the KU Department of Anthropology.

Though his current position will keep him in Kansas for at least the next five years, Steve’s research aspirations could take him elsewhere. “My ultimate interest is disease as experienced by Native American populations after contact in 1492,” he said. “What was the cause, how devastating was it, what were the diseases, what was the sequence and why did they occur the way they did?”

Steve’s focus at the medicinal plant program, the ethnobotany database, is an extensive repository of information on the traditional cultural uses of the region’s plants.  Plains Indian cultures have used these plants for thousands of years, providing most of the recorded knowledge on the plants’ medicinal use. The database contains information on which tribes used which plants and how, as well as cultural specifics on the collection and preparation of the plants, and even tribal names for the plants. This cultural information gives the medicinal plant program some guidance on what plants might be most promising for medicinal analysis.

In addition, the database helps program staff keep track of field collections. “With a goal of 150 collections for this year alone,” he said, “it’s important that folks in the field know what we have already collected and how much.”

In the future, the database will provide researchers with important information about plant characteristics. The database helps staff members track progress and stay organized, and it also contains historical information about plants and their medicinal potential. Though the database is a work in progress for now, “Eventually we plan to disseminate the information collected in the database via papers, the web and perhaps even a book,” Steve said.

In addition to working for the medicinal plant program, Steve is an adjunct associate professor of anthropology at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kan. He’s also taught at KU, Avila University, the University of Missouri-Kansas City and Highland Community College. “Teaching allows me to maintain a generalist perspective in anthropology,” he said, “whereas the ethnobotany of the Native Medicinal Plant Research Program is very specialized. It’s a good contrast.”

Aside from being a medical anthropologist, Steve is a regular guy. He plays kickball on Fridays, he’s an avid KU sports supporter, and he’s not especially chatty.

Lindsey Siegele
Graduate assistant, communications and outreach