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

Olympia's Science Cafe

    On Tuesday night, Olympia’s Science Café drew a standing-room-only crowd to its monthly program at Batdorf & Bronson. The speaker was rainforest-canopy biologist, Evergreen State College professor, and dynamo Nalini Nadkarni.
     My husband and I grabbed the last two seats in the back(tall stools normally used by latte sippers), and waited patiently while the chatty and gregarious crowd ordered up hot and steamy drinks. Nadkarni and a few others were hovering over a laptop and projector. We sipped our team and we waited. And waited. The laptop and projector were having some communication "issues." Menus were displayed, keys pressed, programs were exited, machines rebooted, connections checked, commands executed.
   “Is there a laptop in the house?” someone called.
   Amazingly, no one responded. I was surprised--there were probably 60 people in the room. I wondered if laptop owners were becoming as worried as doctors and good Samaritans about possible malpractice suits. You offer your laptop, introduce a virus, crash and operating system, and here comes the lawyer with papers claiming psychological trauma and lost wages by the PowerPoint lecturer.
   I really wanted to see Nadkarni’s photographs of trees and the forest canopy. I nudged by husband and reminded him that he had is laptop in his backpack. He walked it to the front of the room, pulled few plugs, and did a quick transplant. After a brief and futile frenzy, Nadkarni took the microphone, unflustered, smiling.
    “People have been communication for thousands of years without the use of computers, projectors, PowerPoints, and other technology. People have talked in person, face to face, using their voices to express themselves and their ideas…” and then, with more power and grace than a human being has right to possess, she took us into the rainforest, up into the canopy, and into her heart.
    Nalini Nadkarni described her pioneering work in the canopy of the Monteverde Cloud Forest of Costa Rica and, closer to home, the temperate rain forests of the Olympic Peninsula. She spoke of the biodiversity of these forest canopies—of howler monkeys, sloths, snakes, orchids, bromeliads, ferns, and mosses. There are some 500 species of orchids in the Costa Rican rainforest. A single big-leaf maple in the Olympic Peninsula rainforest hosts as many as 90 species of moss and lichen.
    Moss and lichen are epiphytes, plants that live on trees and other plants but do not derive their nutrients from them (the way parasites do). So, what nourishes this abundance and diversity of plants? Clouds!
     Largely in the form of mist and fog, clouds deliver not only water but nutrients such as nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, and sodium, among them. Like raindrops, each droplet of mist or fog forms around a tiny particle—usually dust or dirt. This particle is called a condensation nucleus. It, too, is a nutrient. Rain-producing clouds provide much of the precipitation in a rainforest, of course, but it’s the shape-shifting, enveloping, bathing, hugging mist and fog that allows epiphytes to thrive.
     Without a single visual aid, Nadkarni has transported me into the cloud forest. I am suddenly in a helmet and climbing harness in the top of a tree, gazing down the green and glowing fern- and moss-covered branches. I am seeing tiny orchids, miniscule frogs in water pooling on bromeliads, the beady eyes of a howler monkey. I am on a zipline whizzing past 15,000 species of epiphytes. I am patting thick beds of moss. I am thinking of the marbled murrelet and the single pale-green egg it lays in this moss in Olympic National Park. I am in the Garden of Eden. And then I hear the words “climate change.”
      Though Nadkarni probably loses sleep at night thinking about the impact of a warming and drying climate on her beloved rainforests, she doesn’t get gloomy or preachy at this point in her talk. Everyone in the room likely owns a copy of An Inconvenient Truth, watches National Geographic specials, and knows the significance of the number 350. She does not need to convince anyone that climate change is real and happening now. Nadkarni simply asks us to use our imagination. She has so fully and effectively conjured up the rainforest for her audience that it is almost heartbreaking to undo her work, to envision a rainforest without rain, a lush green ecosystem without its sustaining mists and fogs, a tree without its community of epiphytes. It is not a pretty picture--dry, brown, parched, withering, desiccated, and silent of song.
    Before I can sink into that paralyzing sadness and global grief, Nadkarni has moved on. She is telling us about what she is doing doing doing to help conserve these forests. Oh my goodness, not only is this woman a fabulous speaker, but also a mover and shaker—using her abudant energy and enthusiasm to tackle projects that would seem to require a very large staff or several clones. In addition to her field work, paper and book writing, and teaching, Nadkarni has spent much time preaching about the biodiversity and the importance of global forest conservation. Until recently, she admits, she has been preaching to the choir--a choir or other scientists and academics with an interest in forest ecosystems. Now she is moving from preaching to reaching—from preaching to the choir to reaching out to those not in the choir—the people who don’t necessarily think about trees the same way she does…if at all.

Next Blog: Tree-Top Barbie, Polliwogs in the Penitentiary, and the Nadkarni Method for Locating Lip-Synchers, Hummers, and Others Simply Listening (or not) to the Choir.