Reaching Out at the Science Cafe of Olympia

Tuesday night's SRO crowd at Batdorf and Bronson House of  Coffee and Culture had gathered to hear tree-canopy biologist and Evergreen State College professor Nalini Nadkarni's talk "From Ivory Towers to Prison Towers: Research on Rainforest Canopies and Its Communication to Non-traditional Public Audiences." This is a long and slightly wonky title for what I am dubbing "Reach, Don't Preach."

As I mentioned in my previous entry, Nadkarni did not come to the Science Cafe to preach to anyone about tree conservation, the perils of ignoring global climate change, or the value of biodiversity. Preaching is not Nadkarni's style; her mission these days is devise ways scientists can reach out to the public to share their research--to foster awareness, help enact change, and to provide opportunities for scientists to get feedback from the non-scientific audience. But how do scientists avoid preaching to the choir? Scientists have dozens of opportunities to share their research with other like-minded scientists. During the annual Pacific Seabird Group conference I attended during my research on the marbled murrelet, for instance, there were thirty-some scientists concerned about seabird conservation presenting talks to hundreds of other scientists similarly concerned about seabird conservation. They were, for the most part, preaching to the choir.

Many scientists do reach out to the public to raise awareness and increase understanding of their work. For the most part, however, the people drawn to a scientific lecture (say the 2,500 people packed into a National Geographic Lecture at Seattle's Benaroya Hall) would be considered a "traditional" audience according to Nadkarni. And, except for a few people who wandered into Batdorf nad Bronson for a coffee, laptop juice, or by accident on Tuesday night, the Science Cafe of Olympia draws a "traditional" audience, too: the choir.

Nadkarni says it's time scientists reach out to audiences and populations of people who aren't necessarily interested in science, or even wildlife conservation, forests, trees, seabirds, epiphytes, or any of the planet's myriad and mind-boggling life forms. Who are these audiences exactly and how do you find them? How do you create two-way streets for the exchange of ideas and new perspectives between scientists and the public? You think outside the box, outside the Ivory Tower.

You go to churches, temples, synagogues, and religious gatherings to explore how faith-based communities address issues of conservation, ecology, the environment, nature, and trees in a spiritual context. Nadkarni has deep spiritual connections to trees, and was thrilled to discover that liturgical texts such as the Bible, Koran, Talmud, and Bagadhvagita include many references to trees. Trees are nearly universal metaphors for the human condition. We start out as a seed, grow, are nurtured, undergo change over the seasons, are challenged by disease and outside forces, bloom, become rooted, uprooted, branch out, produce, decay, and ultimately die. In the context and language of different faiths, Nadkarni gave outreach sermons about this spiritual connection to trees and about the importance of honoring that connection through forest conservation.

You go to nail salons. You have your nails painted green and with leaf designs. You go out in public and use flashy hand gestures. You engage young girls and women who hang out in nail salons and not in trees about forests and life in the the canopy. You talk about your connection to trees and how they make life possible. You get them to think about their favorite tree. They will tell a friend about the scientists with the trees on her nails, and she will tell a friend, and she will tell a friend, and.....

This is how Nalini Nadkarni reaches out, reaches way outside the box. You think about the lush moss growing thickly on the branches of trees in the rainforest. You know that mosses hold massive amounts of water and intercept nutrients in fog and rain water. You know they provide these nutrients to other life forms in the forest. You have learned that this moss takes 20 to 40 years to grow back once it's stripped off the trees. In the Pacific Northwest, it is stripped off by the horticulture industry to pack flower bulbs and hide the dirt in potted plants. You wonder about growing it commercially. You wonder where you'll find moss farmers. You approach the Cedar Creek Correctional Center--a state prison outside Olympia. They have time on their hands, they have space, and they don't need sharp tool. You talk with the inmates about forests, and trees, and sustainability, and you turn inmates into moss researchers, plant cultivators, and nurturers of life.

And then you bring the inmates a 300-gallon tank of water and 80 frog eggs. But not just any frog eggs--the eggs of the endangered Oregon spotted frog. You tell them about the dwindling populations of these frogs in the Puget Sound region. The inmates raise polliwogs (tadpoles), and then frogs. They feed them crickets every two hours and raise frogs that are bigger (and perhaps healthier) than frogs raised at other sites such as the Woodland Park Zoo. The inmates learn about endangered species, about frog life cycle, growth, change, transformation, nutrition, the food cycle, wetlands, habitats. And you imagine a thousand frogs, a thousand 0.7-ounce hand-raised endangered frogs hopping around the wetlands at Ft. Lewis.

And then you walk into a sewing shop in your tree-climbing gear and as the tailor if she can duplicate your outfit. In miniature. For a Barbie doll. She can and she does. And you and your graduate students scoop up all the Barbies in fine condition from the local thrift stores. And you put little safety helmets on their stiff blond hair, boots on their high-heel feet, multi-pocketed non-slimming pants and vests on their curvaceous bodies. You give them crossbows, a coil of climbing rope, and tiny field notebooks. You put them in boxes and mail them to young girls who might take their Treetop Barbie outside, into a tree, and make a connection, think about trees, about canopies, about exploring a world that does not  feature sequined ball gowns, stilettos, and social climbing. They will show their friends their new Barbie and they will talk about trees and climbing and not Ken.

Photo of Treetop Barbie from Nalini Nadkarni's website.

It would be challenging, if not impossible, to leave a talk by Nalini Nadkarni without feeling inspired, energized, moved, educated, entertained, connected, and quite lazy. Which all leads to motivation and action. Some action. Something. Anything. Now. This is the power of a great communicator, an ambassador of the forest, a woman who is strong, deeply rooted, and reaching out to keep the planet beautiful and sustainable. 
To learn more about Nalini Nadkarni's work, click There is is link there to view a TED lecture in which Nadkarni describes her work, philosophy, and outreach efforts.

Click here to learn more about upcoming meetings of Science Cafe of Olympia. The next meeting is on April 13 at 7 p.m.  To receive e-mail notices of meetings, contact Donald Lyman at