Friday, September 5, 2014

A Science Hero: Nalini Nadkarni, Between Earth and Sky

I recently finished Nalini Nadkarni’s book, Between Earth and Sky (2008), which is a long thoughtful meditation on trees:  the role they play in ecosystems, and in the lives of humans directly and indirectly.  She illustrates how trees permeate every aspect of our lives.  Forest canopies are her cup of tea and she tells you about them with the flare of a sugar maple in fall.

I met her when she was Miami U’s Hefner Lecturer a decade or so ago, and her visit has always stuck with me because of the amazing science outreach efforts she’s initiated while continuing to be an active researcher—from treetop Barbie, which her lab designed and sold, to prisoners growing moss, to interactions with artists and musicians and dancers.  She has taken dancers to her field site in Costa Rica where they learned about the forests and, naturally, turned that information into dance.  From data to dance!  She says of the performance with members of the Monteverde Community in attendance: “The Costa Ricans were excited to see “their” cloud forest animals and plants portrayed in an abstract but still discernible way…I also recognized the power of artists to communicate how they feel about their subjects to an audience.  Although ecologists and environmental scientists possess a tremendous amount of information about particular animals, plants, and interactions, our training dictates that we leave our emotions out of the telling…In the small auditorium in Monteverde, people seemed far more inspired than I had ever seen them at a scientist’s lecture or conservationist workshop.  Nevertheless, I knew that my “science-y” input into the dance had added something.” 

Nature has everything you could hope for, plus mosquitoes. Yet we are increasingly removed from nature even while the magnitude of our impact increases exponentially.  And we scientists will turn it all into a lecture, when really a dance seems more appropriate. Although she goes to the masses in TED talks and seminars, it also seems that she brings the masses with her… maybe that is too slow with 7 billion plus of us, but it has a huge appeal: One person who can get fired up about epiphytes, how many more people will s/he impact in the rest of her/his life?  Nadkarni seems at the cutting edge of what any research scientist is doing, so we must keep an eye on her.  She can see the forest for the trees, and each tree she can call out by name.