I picked up the book Life in the Treetops: Adventures of a Woman in Biology after interviewing the author for a profile piece in the News & Observer/Charlotte Observer. Several times in the interview when I asked for more specific information, Dr. Lowman said “You should read my book, it’s all in there.” At first, I bristled a little thinking she was trying to make a sale. Later, I realized her career was so jam full of accomplishments and events that she literally didn’t trust her memory to recount dates and place names to me. She’d recorded it once in her book, so why dwell on it any longer?
Meg Lowman is a tireless explorer and science communicator. She’s also funny. At the Science Online 2011 un-conference, she gave the main talk at the banquet. At one point I looked around to see David Dobbs, Steve Silberman, Carl Zimmer and several scientists belly-laughing at her quips. Even the science comedian, Brian Mallow, scheduled to go on after her was laughing his butt off.
So when I picked up her book I must admit I was expecting an element of her public-entertainer personality to shine through. It did, but in an admittedly less polished way than she presents herself today. I attribute this to the fact that she wrote Life in the Treetops a decade ago, when she was just finding her footing as a successful female scientist in a male-dominated field. (Don’t get me wrong, she comes across as a strong character with a firm idea of what she wants out of life and her career, but her humor resonates in a much more self-assured and self-comfortable way today, in my opinion). Ten years later, she’s cemented her place in the field of tropical ecology and forest canopy research, and she’s much more comfortable with what it means to be a female scientist, a mother, and a relentless communicator and teacher.
In part, Life in the Treetops is a giant backgrounder on who Meg Lowman is. It spotlights her early career and the research questions she asked of rainforests in Australia. These questions mainly had to do with how insect herbivory affected trees and their canopies, how long leaves live in rainforest ecosystems, and how seedling trees grow into giants, or not. But in part, Life in the Treetops is also an intimate study of how the women’s liberation movement of the 60s and 70s played out in rural Australia, where Lowman first married and started a family while trying to pursue a career as a scientist. She candidly discusses the problems she encountered with people in her life who encouraged her to drop science in exchange for “housewifery.”
The book traces the start and failure of her first marriage, which plays out in an inverse relationship to the start and success of her career. A constant theme in the book is her wonderment at what may have happened to her had she access to a strong female mentor in her field when she was a graduate student. Perhaps because of this lack, she herself has become a mentor to many and an inspiration to hundreds if not thousands of school kids. For an excerpt, check out this NY Times review.
If you are a female scientist just getting started, this book will probably be an inspiration that marks how far women have come in the field. But even if you’re not a female, a scientist (or both), then you’ll still probably enjoy the easy, converstational way she discusses her passion for discovering what makes forest canopies tick. Lowman has the communication skills of David Attenborough, the gee-whiz curiosity embodied by Ranger Rick and a mom-next-door personna with a never-flagging can-do attitude.
My profile on Meg Lowman will publish in the News & Observer/Charlotte Observer in early March. Sometime before then, I’ll have a guest post about her recent research on the PLoS Blog network and I’ll post links to each here.