A New Orleans native received a prestigious award from Harvard University for his work over three decades in the Amazon rainforest. 

The 2019 “Michael Shinagel Award for Service” was presented to Dr. Mark Plotkin, who has researched the medicinal properties of plants in the rainforest for decades. 

The award is given by the Harvard Extension School, of which Plotkin is a graduate. It is the Extension School’s most prestigious alumni award, and is named in honor of Dr. Michael Shinagel, former Director of the Extension School and the longest serving Dean in Harvard’s history.

award amazon new orleans man havard

Born in Touro Hospital and raised in Broadmoor, Plotkin attended A.H. Wilson grammar school, and then went on to complete high school at Isidore Newman. Although he graduated from Harvard, Yale and Tufts, Mark also took classes at Tulane, Loyola and the University of New Orleans as an undergraduate. He is the son of the late George Plotkin and Helene Plotkin, who taught at Newman School for many years.

The Shinagel Award is given “in appreciation of those who have dedicated themselves to the service of others.” 

The committee chose to honor Mark Plotkin this year “in recognition of his lifelong commitment to the protection of the Amazon rainforest and tribal communities within.”

Mark Plotkin laughing with natives of the Amazon rainforest
Mark Plotkin

Plotkin is an ethnobotanist, a scientist who studies medicinal plants and the rainforest shamans who best know how use these botanical medicines. Plotkin is also the President of the Amazon Conservation Team, an organization that works in partnership with indigenous communities to protect both rainforests and indigenous cultures. To date, ACT has partnered with over 50 South American tribes to map and improve management and protection of more than 80 million acres of ancestral rainforests.

Mark and rainforest natives pose for a photo
Mark Plotkin

The scientist is perhaps best known for “Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice,” which is one of the most popular rainforest books ever written and is currently in the 40th printing. His IMAX film “Amazon” was nominated for an Academy Award, and his TED Talk on how to protect uncontacted tribes of Amazonia has been viewed well over a million times.

He credits his Louisiana upbringing as playing a fundamental role in helping determine his career path. 

“I grew up in an environment of constant heat and stifling humidity, peculiar politics, water-logged soils, ubiquitous insects and unusual cultures," he said. "What better training could there be for life in the Amazon rainforest?”