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When Brigham Young University senior Lisa O'Rourke filed her application last year for a three-year National Science Foundation Fellowship, she didn't expect much to happen.

So when the envelope arrived a couple of weeks ago, O'Rourke asked a friend to help her look through the attached letters and sheets of information.Just in case it was bad news, she reasoned, having a friend along wouldn't hurt.

But for the 19-year-old from Blairstown, N.J., the news was more than good it was unbelievable.

The National Science Foundation awarded O'Rourke a fellowship usually reserved for students pursuing doctorates, said Paul A. Cox, a BYU associate professor of ethnobotany and holder of an NSF Presidential Young Investigator Award.

O'Rourke's three-year fellowship covers tuition and fees and a yearly $12,000 stipend.

She plans to pursue her master's degree in ethnobotany at BYU.

Studying tropical botany has been a dream since childhood.

"In the East where I grew up it's really lush," she said. "I fell in love with that environment and would always read about jungles and especially the tropics. I always wanted to see the rain forests."

Ethnobotany, the study of tribal peoples and their extensive knowledge of plant-based healing, intrigues her because of its heritage and potential to alleviate human suffering.

Under Cox's guidance, O'Rourke classifies and catalogs thousands of plant varieties used for medicinal purposes in such areas as Tonga and Western Samoa.

Last year, she traveled to a rain forest in Tonga to conduct field research. She lived with the Funaki family and came to know a village "faito'o" or healer, a woman whom villagers seek out when suffering from various illnesses.

Handing down knowledge about the island's plants and their medicinal value has been a mother-to-daughter tradition that takes years to perfect. With the advent of modern life and its conveniences, many healers have found it difficult to transfer their unique knowledge.