MUIH: Can you tell us about some of the diverse work you’ve done in the herbalism field?
Michael Tims: In the 1980s and ‘90s, I owned and operated a health food store in Alexandria, VA, where I also had a clinical herb practice. My passion for the plants led me to pursue my doctorate at the University of Maryland, researching the chemical, ecological, and biological influences on which medicines got made by plants. I worked on projects with mistletoe and goldenseal, as well as studies of dangerous compounds produced by mold fungi.
During this time, the Food and Drug Administration contracted me to provide toxicological assessments of Traditional Chinese Medicine and comfrey and to help them develop detection methods for a wide range of medicinally active chemicals found in herbal medicine. I also helped to build an online medicinal plant database, HerbMed, now housed at Herbal Gram Magazine.
After completing my doctorate, I was awarded several National Institute of Standards and Technology/National Institutes of Health postdoctoral fellowships to design and produce botanical standard reference materials. My projects included working with green tea, kudzu, black cohosh, red clover, and chocolate. Throughout my research, I taught classes in pharmacolognosy, phytochemistry, microbiology, plant physiology, biology, and ecology at the University of Maryland, Trinity University, Montgomery College, and Northern Virginia Community College.
Having earned a BA in writing, I also developed a freelance science writing business over time. The work consisted of both writing and editing. Subject material was very broad in both biological research and educational arenas.
What do you see as 2-3 exciting trends in the field of herbalism?
As the Food and Drug Administration has instituted greater compliance demands on the herbal supplement industry, more jobs have arisen to help companies produce effective and safe products. While this has led to growth of larger companies, it’s also led to tremendous opportunities for entrepreneurs. Secondly, the demand for the ability to translate traditional knowledge on herbal medicine into modern product formulary has never been greater. Thirdly, as traditional mono-crops can no longer sustain the family farm, options to grow medicinal plants as value-added crops have increased.
How will herbalists influence or be influenced by these trends?
Herbalists will be able to make choices about whether they are more effective working alone, in very small organizations, or in larger institutions in creating effective, safe, and sustainably sourced medicinal plant medicine.
Can you tell us about some of the creative careers for people who love herbs?
The field is incredibly diverse. With clinical training, you can work as a clinician, as an adverse event epidemiologist, or as part of a clinical trial team. Depending on the level of your training and experience, you could also work as a grower, performing quality assurance or Good Manufacturing Practice compliance measurements, formulating herbal products, educating consumers, or as part of a company sales force. Your work also could be communicating as a journalist, writer, educator, or researcher. Or if you are adventurous enough, you could start your own business and do all of the above!
As examples, tell us about a few of your colleagues who are doing great work in the field.
Michael McGuffin partnered in starting his how herbal supplement company, eventually going through a career change and now working as the president of the American Herbal Products Association, representing industry interests in Congress. Trish Flaster started her own business acquiring and vetting raw plant material for industry and research organizations. She gets to travel the world and works for herself.
What you would recommend to people who have an interest in herbalism as a career or who want to try treatment?
I invite everyone who is interested to attend an upcoming herbal event at Tai Sophia, including a panel on Careers in the Herbal Supplement Industry and workshops on Detoxification Using Herbal Medicine, Strengthening the Immune System for Winter, Medicine Making Café, as well as monthly Open Houses. You’re also welcome to visit Tai Sophia and sit in on a class or schedule an herbal consultation at our on-site We also have a Natural Care Center on campus where interns work with faculty members to provide a team approach to herbal treatments. It is a wonderful experience for many clients and a very economical way to start treatment.
Michael Tims, PhD, is the academic director of the herbal programs at Tai Sophia. He has more than 20 years of professional experience in herbalism, including as a faculty member at the University of Maryland, Trinity University, Northern Virginia Community College, and Montgomery College. He completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in herbal supplement research. In addition, Tims served as a pharmacognosist at the Alternative Medicine Foundation, and a contractor for the Food and Drug Administration, where he provided toxicity assessments to prioritize medicinal plant research. Tims says he is fascinated by the “space in-between,” exploring the gaps of knowledge between botany, mycology, chemistry, and ecology, and collaborating with students to uncover how they can develop into life-long learners.