Stephanie Perez Embarks on A New Journey of Independent Research

January 21, 2019


Stephanie Perez, a fourth-year Legal Studies major with a minor in History, is embarking on a new research project, Law and the Early History of Bioprospecting in the Ecuadorian Amazon, which will explore the legal aspects of bioprospecting in Ecuador in the mid-twentieth century and its relationship to pharmaceutical development in the United States. This project was inspired by work she is doing with Professor Matt O'Hara on his new book on the history of bioprospecting in the early twentieth century. After taking Professor O'Hara's history class on Colonial Mexico last summer, she became inspired by his knowledge, and enthusiasm for Latin American history, and became motivated to conduct research outside of her regular coursework. After discussing her research ideas with Professor O'Hara, she learned about the various research opportunities available to undergraduates and worked with Professor O'Hara to combine her interests in law and history to develop a project that was related to Professor O'Hara's current research.

Professor O'Hara's new project examines the story of a plant-derived poison that eventually became the basis for a blockbuster commercial drug. He explores substances and knowledge derived from native peoples and mestizo intermediaries in the Ecuadorian Amazon and how they helped transform Western anesthesia and surgical practices in the mid-twentieth century. Stephanie's project expands this research by exploring the legal context of these dramatic developments. She found that the international trade of endemic organisms between the United States and Ecuador in the early twentieth century raises questions about the social, cultural, and legal repercussions of this exchange. For example, how does one examine the impact of bioprospecting in Ecuador when the very notions of "property" and "ownership" might be defined very differently as one moves across national borders and cultures? Additionally, how might one investigate important legal concepts related to bioprospecting when Indigenous notions of justice might be in conflict with both Ecuadorian and American legal systems? Stephanie will answer these questions through a research paper on the creation and application of legal systems in Ecuador, including Indigenous models of trade and ownership, and subsequent conflicts with both domestic and foreign legal systems in regards to bioprospecting and patent law.

Even though this was her first time developing and proposing an independent research project, Professor O'Hara encouraged Stephanie to apply to both the Koret Undergraduate Research Scholarship, and the THI Undergraduate Research Fellowship, two very prestigious and competitive research programs. She received both awards as well as the Bertha N. Melkonian Prize. She is incredibly grateful for the opportunity to work with talented professors like Matt O'Hara, and to be able to participate in research outside of regular coursework. These scholarships and fellowships have granted her more than just financial aid, they have also validated her curiosity, and encouraged her to ask complex questions and seek answers independently. Receiving these awards has also increased her confidence in the project and has motivated her to continue setting high academic goals and standards for herself.

Last year, Stephanie transferred to UCSC from Cabrillo College with a two-year degree in Administration of Justice, and Liberal Arts, and is currently working with the Santa Cruz County Probation Department. She plans to graduate from UCSC this spring, attend UC San Diego's Paralegal Program this summer, and then attend law school.