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After Disturbance and Recovery, Ecologist Finds Opportunities to Connect About Science

Nalini Nadkarni
Nalini Nadkarni takes part in a live Q&A with Jennifer Frazier at the 2021 AAAS Annual Meeting. | AAAS

After a serious injury, ecologist Nalini Nadkarni found herself drawing upon the interdisciplinary lessons she had applied in her work on forest canopy ecosystems – and recommitting to her efforts to communicate with those outside of the scientific community about her research work and values.

As a professor of biology at the University of Utah and a researcher of rainforest canopy ecosystems in Washington state and Costa Rica, she brings to her work an interdisciplinary approach, having collaborated with experts in completely different academic fields to gain insight on disturbance and recovery.

“Most often we think about the negative effects of disturbance,” Nadkarni told attendees of the virtual 2021 AAAS Annual Meeting during a Feb. 10 plenary lecture titled “Forests, the Earth, and Ourselves: Understanding Dynamic Systems Through an Interdisciplinary Lens.”

Yet there are positive outcomes to a disturbance within an ecosystem, she said. One expert in refugee studies noted that, despite the tumult and challenges of life as a refugee, refugee women could get an education to which they might not otherwise have access. She learned from a professor of dance that rejection of old forms of ballet allowed the emergence of modern dance: “Disturbance is actually required for progress,” said Nadkarni.

She learned that after a disturbance, an ecosystem does not return to its same form – a point emphasized to her by an urban studies researcher who noted that New Orleans has not reverted to its pre-Hurricane Katrina state. It emerged changed, with some areas experiencing renovation and rebuilding and others seeing a decline in infrastructure in other areas.

The city, like other ecosystems that have experienced disturbance and recovery, emerge into a “third state,” something different from both the original state and the disturbed state.

Nadkarni drew upon these insights in her research on canopy ecosystems and, after experiencing a life-threatening injury while conducting fieldwork, in her own recovery. In 2015, she was collecting treetop samples of moss in a maple tree when her rope failed, falling 50 feet to the forest floor and requiring evacuation from the field.

“I myself had become a disturbed ecosystem,” she said.

But, upon healing, she emerged changed.

“This third state of mine coincides with not only the disturbances of deforestation and climate change, but a deeper societal disturbance, the separation of humans from nature.” To mitigate some of these disturbances, Nadkarni finds new opportunities for public engagement where she can find common ground and share the importance of connection with trees and nature – particularly for groups that do not have ready access to science and nature, she said.

Finding Common Ground

One group she has connected to about science and nature are incarcerated people. More than 2 million adults and youths in the United States are incarcerated in jails or prisons, many of whom have little access to scientific education or to nature, Nadkarni said.

She has collaborated with state prison systems in Washington and Utah to recruit academic scientists to give lectures on their research. The lectures have been well-received by attendees, Nadkarni said. Surveys of attendees have found a greater understanding of science content, an identity shift toward being “capable science learners” and a desire to learn more, she said. Another collaboration with conservation groups trained incarcerated “citizen scientists” who helped raise endangered species like Oregon spotted frogs for restoration projects, Nadkarni said.

Nadkarni has also reached out to religious communities about the value of trees, breaking down barriers between two worldviews – science and religion – often perceived to be at odds. She has given more than 40 talks at local churches and synagogues, noting the importance of trees in the Old Testament, and with her colleagues has mapped the trees in local churchyards, providing parishioners scientific information about the local flora.

To reach young girls who might live in cities and have little opportunity to climb trees or enjoy nature, she and her students created “Treetop Barbie,” dressing a doll in field clothes and creating a doll-sized booklet about plants. This creative repurposing later drew interest from Mattel, which created a line of explorer dolls in collaboration with National Geographic, making Treetop Barbie official.

Yet outreach does not need to be through a formal program, she emphasized, offering an example of a simple way she has fostered conversations: She had a tree painted onto one of her nails, and when someone commented on her manicure, she had an opportunity to talk about her work – and her values.

A Call to Action

Nadkarni urged meeting attendees to find those opportunities for connection, however small, in their own lives. If each of the 6.2 million scientists and engineers in the United States had a conversation with one person a week about their research and their values, all together they could reach every person in the United States, she said.

She added, “When we act even in small ways, scientists can do a lot collectively.”

[Associated image: Majora Carter/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0]



Andrea Korte

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