Alexandra M. Towns

Dr. Alexandra M. Towns’ research is driven by empirical and applied questions situated in the broad area of human-plant-health dynamics. She brings an international development perspective and expertise in women’s knowledge to address interdisciplinary questions related to nutrition, healthcare-seeking behavior, reproductive health, childcare, socio-environmental systems, and the informal economy. Her research is based in West and Central Africa, with fieldwork in Niger, Benin, and Gabon. As an ethnobotanist, Dr. Towns utilizes interdisciplinary methods including qualitative questionnaires, biomedical practitioner interviews, market surveys, GIS, and botanical specimen collection. Ethnobotanists working in the field of public health are uniquely positioned to make contributions to improving African healthcare through researching local health practices and beliefs, in which plants play a major role. Alexandra’s work goes beyond the identification of useful plant species and the documentation of local systems of knowledge to focus on applied research questions with special attention to policy implications.

Dr. Towns discovered her interest for ethnobotany and traditional knowledge systems while working as an agricultural extension agent in rural Niger. From 2006-2008, she worked with a women’s sesame seed cooperative, supported various community gardening projects, and collaborated with farmers and local organizations to help improve household food security. She also spent many mornings collecting wild plants with village youth and afternoons preparing traditional dishes with female elders. Alexandra returned to Niger in 2009 to conduct ethnoecological research for her M.Sc. degree in International Agricultural Development from the University of California, Davis (USA). This study employed participatory methodologies to identify wild plant and fish species and investigate their role in the local food system. Ms. Towns also holds a B.A. degree in International Studies from Towson University in Baltimore, Maryland (USA).

Alexandra earned a PhD from Leiden University in September 2014 as part of the project “Plants of the Motherland: Linking West-African and Afro-Caribbean Ethnobotany.” Her PhD dissertation sought to unravel the relationship between women and plants by assessing women’s medicinal plant knowledge and plant use practices for reproductive health and childcare in Bénin, West Africa and Gabon, Central Africa. Specifically she assessed (1) which types of vegetation women harvest for medicinal plants, (2) how closely women’s health perspectives, plant knowledge, and plant use practices reflect the statistical causes of maternal mortality (3) which infant illnesses mothers know how to treat with medicinal plants and for which illnesses they seek biomedical care or traditional healers, and (4) which species, volume, and value of medicinal plant products are sold on herbal markets in Gabon. With an international team of students and researchers, Dr. Towns conducted ethnobotanical questionaires, collected over 1400 plants, and documented their collection, preparation and administration. They interviewed biomedical healthcare providers at national hospitals and local clinics in order to understand the relationship between traditional and modern healthcare systems. They also conducted two (Bénin 2011 and Gabon 2012) nationwide herbal market surveys in order to quantify the commercial trade and identify priority species for conservation.  This dissertation, entitled Fertility and fontanels: women’s knowledge of medicinal plants for reproductive health and childcare in western Africa is available through the Leiden University Respository: https://openaccess.leidenuniv.nl/handle/1887/28942.