At Home in the Trees
U biologist Nalini Nadkarni brings the magic of science to all, from prisoners to sports fans and students.
Nalini Nadkarni, who describes herself as “a small brown woman,” has been pulled aside in airport security lines a couple dozen times as she has traveled the globe. For these special occasions, she has perfected what she calls her “Trees and Toiletries Lecture.”
As Transportation Security Administration agents rummage through her tote bag to make sure she’s not carrying any suspicious items, she begins her spiel. That lipstick? It gets its smooth texture from shea butter, derived from the seeds of a West African tree. The nail polish? Glossy because of tree fibers mixed with nitrocellulose. Those bandage strips? The adhesive on them comes from gum arabic, an exudate from trees belonging to the pea family.
She continues her lecture until the agents have finished searching—because even in the most unlikely situations, an alert scientist can always find an opportunity to talk about the topic she loves.
Nadkarni is a forest ecologist and, since the fall of 2011, the director of the University of Utah’s Center for Science and Mathematics Education. This is her mission now: to draw more K-12 teachers to science and math, to improve instruction on the college level, and to bring science and math to everyone else—to prisons and churches and halftime at Pac-12 football games.
The freedom to create such an ambitious center is what lured Nadkarni to the U, despite her initial reluctance. Utah, after all, is hardly the tropics, where she and her biologist husband, Jack Longino, have done the bulk of their field research. It’s not even the mossy, forested Pacific Northwest, where the couple had spent the previous two decades. Called “the queen of canopy research” by the National Geographic Society, Nadkarni is at home in the kind of lush foliage found hundreds of feet above the floor of the world’s rain and cloud forests. Utah, by comparison, is dry and sparse.
But in the summer of 2011, the couple packed up their labs and their furniture and moved to Salt Lake City, eager to start a new life at a research university dedicated to public outreach. In her office on the second floor of the University of Utah’s Aline Wilmot Skaggs Biology Building, she installed two hanging swings. If you climb onto them, look out the big windows, and squint, it’s the next best thing to being in a tree.
Her passion for science began in the towering maples in her parents’ front yard in Bethesda, Maryland. The trees were Nalini’s oasis, a place where she could read and watch birds and dream of tying a spool of thread to a squirrel’s tail so she could measure its journey across the branches. As she writes in her 2008 book Between Earth and Sky: Our Intimate Connections to Trees, “Those perches aloft were my refuge from the world of homework, parental directives, and the ground-bound humdrum of the everyday.”
Her mother had been raised an Orthodox Jew in Brooklyn, New York, and her father had been raised a Hindu in Thane, India. The family lived an Indian lifestyle in suburban Washington, D.C., sleeping on mats on the floor, eating without utensils, and subtly expecting more from Nalini’s three brothers than they did from her and her sister, she recollects. Trees were the place where Nalini could both escape and excel.
By the time she was nine years old, she figured she had learned something the rest of the world needed to know; so she wrote her first book, a hand-written, stapled tome called Be Among the Birds: My Guide to Climbing Trees.
By the time she entered college at Brown University in 1972, she was torn between careers in biology and dance. When she graduated, she wrangled two disparate internships: six months at the camp of a beetle taxonomist in Papua, New Guinea, followed by six months with a modern dance troupe in Paris. She came back home and drove a taxicab in Maryland while she sorted out her plans. She loved both science and dance—but science won out.
It was “the intellectual piece” that she found so enticing about field biology, she says. And the beetle taxonomist was 70 years old, proof that she’d be able to have a long career.
She enrolled in graduate school in the University of Washington’s College of Forest Resources, and it was during her first summer’s field course—in the tropical forests of Costa Rica—that she found herself drawn to what was so tantalizingly out of reach, hundreds of feet above the dark under-story. How did plants live up in the forest canopy without connection to the soil, she wondered. Were there insects and animals that spent their whole lives up there?
Her instructors had no answers for her, because almost no one had been up in the canopy to study it. She itched to get up there herself, but, as she writes, “Most of these trees have unnervingly tall trunks, without lower branches, and can sport spines, biting insects, and the occasional lurking snake. The tree-climbing skills I had developed in the benevolent trees of my childhood were useless.”
Everything changed when she met a student who was applying mountain-climbing techniques to reach the highest treetops. Suddenly, literally and figuratively, her world opened up.
She came back to graduate school intent on researching the differences between the temperate rainforest canopy of Olympic National Park and the tropical cloud forest canopy of Costa Rica. But when she approached her grad committee with her enthusiastic plan, they balked, reminding her there was plenty still to be discovered on the ground. So Nadkarni applied for, and received, a $50,000 grant on her own.
The result was a first-ever study of these forests’ epiphytes, the canopy-dwelling plants—orchids, ferns, mosses—that cover every available trunk and branch of rain and cloud forest trees. Her discovery, a cover article in the prestigious journal Science when she was still a student, was that these epiphytes are able to trap nutrients from rainfall, eventually forming a rich mat of soil underneath them as they cling to the tree. She also discovered that trees develop aerial roots to absorb these nutrients from the mats.
She has spent her research career since then studying the canopy, helping to classify and categorize epiphytes, learning how they interact with the rest of the forest, and beginning to learn what effect humans are having on them.
The first time Longino saw Nadkarni, she was bouncing down a road in Costa Rica. He was a University of Texas graduate student studying ants in a remote field site in the lowlands and was part of a field excursion to the cloud forest. They both say it was love at first sight.
After a few days, he had to return to his field site, located a day or two away in one of the most remote places in Costa Rica, but they continued to see each other as often as they could. Once, when the bush plane didn’t come on time, Longino hiked 20 miles across the rain forest to catch a bus to another airport to catch a plane that would take him to the village bus that would take him to the rickety school bus that would finally get him to Nalini.
Later, after they were married, he named an ant after her, and later still named ants after their two children. Asked if Nalini’s ant is beautiful, Longino—who is now a professor of biology at the University of Utah and a well-known taxonomist—admits “you’d have to be an ant lover to call any ant beautiful.” But her ant is a canopy ant. “And it’s rare.”
He says his first impression of his wife is still true today: a woman with energy, earnestness, and charisma. “It’s almost an aura,” says Longino, who is not typically a man who gushes. “And there’s not a political bone in her body. The normal politics that go on in any kind of organization, she’s somehow above it all. There’s nothing self-serving about anything she does. I watch her give talks, and it’s like people are ready to give their lives over to her. It’s some kind of Nalini evangelism.”
The search committee for the U’s Center for Science and Math Education was similarly smitten by Nadkarni. “She has this infectious enthusiasm that’s really hard to ignore,” says U biology professor Don Feener. “Her skills at outreach I think are really built into her bones.” Plus, adds U Interim Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Michael Hardman, “she’s one of the most respected plant biologists in the world.”
Nadkarni laments the widening gap between both nature and humans, and science and society. “People who do not have awareness or the understanding of the approach of science lack tools that can help them make good decisions about important issues such as human health and the environment,” she says. Science provides a way to take the glut of data and “interpret it wisely,” she says, “rather than basing decisions on religion or emotions, traditions or being swayed by political pressure.”
Most science researchers, though, “live in the country of Academia,” with their own customs and scientific language, she says. So she both encourages and instructs them on how to become “ambassadors” to the non-science community at large. Nadkarni herself has taken dancers, musicians, and Washington state legislators into the canopy, and has brought rap singers and urban youth together in the forest to make their own beats about trees.
Last year, she teamed up with the U’s Athletics Department to develop “Sports ’n Science,” a program designed to explain the science behind sports. During last fall’s football season, they launched their first home-game Jumbotron video, “The Science of the Punt,” featuring U math professor Peter Trapa and Ute punter Sean Sellwood discussing velocity vectors, angles, and psi. The video is now being shown at other Pac-12 schools.
And then, there is Treetop Barbie. Nadkarni first created the makeover of the iconic, perfectly coiffed fashionista in 1996. Students and volunteers round up the used dolls from thrift stores, dress them in climbing gear, binoculars and a hard hat, and sell them on the International Canopy Network website to raise funds for canopy research.
After an article about Treetop Barbie appeared in The New York Times in 2003, the doll’s manufacturer, Mattel, Inc. complained—until Nadkarni convinced them that 1) the money raised was for a good cause, and 2) she knows a lot of reporters.
Her most ambitious outreach has been to prisoners. In 2004, she began a collaboration with Dan Pacholke, then head of a small corrections center in Washington and now director of prisons for the state. Pacholke, who describes Nadkarni as “electric,” had already been interested in making the correctional facility more environmentally sustainable. With Nadkarni’s help, they were soon bringing in scientists to give lectures and hiring prisoners to compost, grow an organic garden, and raise endangered frogs, butterflies, and prairie plants to repopulate threatened ecosystems.
The prisoners were also hired to research the best ways to grow mosses— the same epiphytes that the floral industry was stripping illegally from the rain forest and that take multiple decades to regenerate in the wild.
Pacholke reports that these work opportunities have given the prisoners a sense of “meaning and purpose beyond themselves,” and although hard data on the program’s effect awaits long-term studies, indications are that the prisoners involved are less prone to act out.
With Washington’s Sustainability in Prisons Project as a model, Nadkarni this spring began the Utah Science in Prisons Project, with the goal of bringing science education, job training, conservation projects, and environmentally sustainable operations to correctional facilities in Utah. The project includes a lecture series at the Utah State Prison on science and math topics, featuring her colleagues from the U. Nadkarni has also been working with researchers and community partners who would like to involve prisoners in conservation research and restoration projects. And she is talking with prison authorities about developing sustainability projects at the correctional facilities.
She’s comfortable in front of prisoners and loggers, professors and TV cameras, but to see Nadkarni in her element, it’s best to watch a 1999 National Geographic special called Heroes of the High Frontier (a clip appears in her 2009 TED talk). There she is, outfitted with ropes and a harness, hoisting herself up an impossibly tall giant strangler fig in Costa Rica. Eager and free.
Fifty years after she began climbing the maple trees in her parents’ yard, this is what she still loves: the arms of a tree holding her, the mystery of nature about to unfold. She and Jack held their own private, unofficial wedding ceremony in a silk-cotton tree in Costa Rica. And someday, when she’s about to die, this is what she’ll want, she says: to be hoisted up into a tropical canopy and strapped to a tree branch, left to sway until she’s gone.
—Elaine Jarvik is a Salt Lake City-based freelance journalist and playwright and a frequent contributor to Continuum.
Web Exclusive Videos
Nadkarni on life science in prison:
Nadkarni on conserving the forest canopy: