This is one of my Observer Sci-Tech feature stories that was published in early March. It’s a profile piece on Meg Lowman, who I’ve written about before here as well as at PLoS blogs (which was then highlighted on Boing Boing). She’s kind of a magnetic personality like that. Instead of simply re-publishing her profile here, I thought it might be a fun exercise to let readers see how the editing process works. I invariably write long, and so my editor at the Observer routinely cuts my stories down to size. Here, I compared the copy I submitted to her with the published piece and then marked the changed areas. The words she removed are in bold red type with a strike-through and the words she inserted are in italicized blue. Enjoy!
a life in the treetops
Margaret Lowman is part Jungle Jane and part mom next door. School kids call her Canopy Meg. She’s an internationally-renowned tropical ecologist who has studied forest canopies on five continents.
She is also the director of the new $56-million Nature Research Center at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences in downtown Raleigh.
For most of her career, Lowman studied the interactions and relationships of species living in the tippy-tops of trees 50 to 200 feet tall. But her new job will require her to descend from the canopies she loves
so dearly,and oversee the center’s research, outreach and exhibits. A key function of the center will be communicating science to the public.
The 80,000-square-foot center will include interactive, hands-on exhibits about the process of science. Museum spokesperson Jonathan Pishney says the center will also house four new research programs: space observation, earth observation, genomics and paleontology/geology. Visitors will get a
voyeuristic look into the world of scientists at work through large glass windows in each program’s lab.
The main attraction will be
SECU’s The Daily Planet, a four-story sphere ical structure that exterior architectural renderings depict as that will look like Earth with a multi-media theater inside. Inside the monumental globe, a multi-media theater will be wired to connect to classrooms across the state, as well as other entities across the nation. Lowman says she hopes that interactive videos here, of scientists at work, will spark children’s interest in science careers.
But don’t expect Lowman to stay away from a forest for long. Since starting at the museum in July 2010, she’s already traveled to Ethiopia where she streamed live video of forest biodiversity surveys to the museum as a case study for how The Daily Planet’s videos may work. And at home, she’s plotting how to build a “canopy walk” in Raleigh that would let people ascend into the world she’s helped illuminate — the treetops.
A natural affinity Lowman grew up in Elmira, New York where she developed, in her own words, “a self-generated appreciation of nature.” “We had a toxic waste dump and a prison, there wasn’t a whole lot going on there,” Lowman says. “I didn’t really have any role models for pursuing science.” But she liked to build tree houses and collected leaves, flowers, insects, feathers and twigs. In seventh grade, Lowman penned a letter to the National Audubon Society president. She says wrote: “I’m really interested in nature and nobody in my school is. Can you tell me what to do?” He wrote her back, suggesting she attend the Burgundy Center for Wildlife Studies in Capon Bridge West Virginia. Her parents packed up their Rambler station wagon and drove her five-and-a-half hours south to camp. For the first time in her life she mingled with kids her age who loved nature. To this day, she credits the experience with giving her the verve to pursue science.
Growing into science, family
Lowman studied birch trees in Scotland for her master’s degree and began her scientific endeavors in earnest as a doctoral student at the University of Sydney in Australia in the late 1970s. She studied insect predation on leaves of rain forest trees. Lowman trained under Joseph Connell — known for developing theories about species diversity.
— by default; he was the only scientist in all of Australia studying its rain forests.
It was a transitional period
in time. for W for women who were fighting for increased liberties but were also pressured to stay at home and raise families. In the early 1980s, she married an Australian sheep-farmer with whom she had two children in the Outback. She led Earthwatch trips into the forests and cajoled family members to come from the U.S. to watch her babies, Eddie and James, while she was in the field. When her boys were ages 6 and 8, she gave them climbing harnesses for Christmas. A month later, they traveled with her to Belize where they went, for the first time, into the rainforest with their mother. They counted army ants, beetles and endless piles of leaves.
But Lowman’s in-laws and rural community frowned upon her scientific pursuits. “I had the scarlet S on my chest,” Lowman says. When forced to choose, science won. She became a single mom, trotting her kids with her into the field when it was safe, figuring out all on her own how to balance children with her science.
Her boys remained her field assistants until they entered college, where James majored in applied math and Eddie in chemistry.
Lowman became known early in her career for pioneering tree-climbing methods that put her, and other scientists, face-to-face with life in the treetops. She credits Connell with nudging her to enter the canopies. Previously, scientists studied the trees with binoculars from the forest floor, she says.
In the early 70s, Lowman used scaffolds to study
the seasonality of birch trees, and later that decade she learned rope systems from spelunkers descending into caves. Reversing their trajectory, she used a single rope and harness to carry herself dozens to hundreds of feet aloft.
In the mid 80s, Lowman used a cherry picker to study eucalyptus trees (while pregnant) and in the early 90s, she studied the forests of Cameroon from a hot air balloon. She devised bridge-and-platform systems in Massachusetts and Belize, and collaborated on a balloon-and-floating-raft craft that allowed scientists to skim above the canopy tops, swishing fine mist nets over the edge to collect insects.
Entering the canopy let her see
allowed her up-close scrutiny of how trees thwart attacks from insects, birds and other animals that eat their leaves and attack their bark. Still, she didn’t always see the insects she was looking for.
One night in Australia, she awoke to nature’s call and padded off to the outhouse. “I heard this gnawing, buzzing sound overhead as I walked beneath the trees and all of a sudden it hit me — the reason I wasn’t seeing the insects feeding on leaves during the day is because they were feeding at night, when they were safe from birds.” After this ah-ha! moment, she studied the canopy
nocturnally, when required at night too.
Lowman gave guest lectures in her children’s science classes. Later, she worked with the JASON Project which connects scientists working far afield with school children in classrooms across the globe.
Kids listened all over the world. She received emails from them that read, “Dear Canopy Meg, how can I help save the rain forests?”
In the mid-90s Yale University Press approached her to write a book about rain forests for general audiences. “My male colleagues told me I was ruining my career by writing a popular media book,” Lowman recalls. But in 1999, “Life in the Treetops” was reviewed favorably in the New York Times. “It was a turning point in my career. It was the best thing that could have happened to me.”
Lowman taught most recently as an environmental science professor at New College in Sarasota, Florida.
While in the Sunshine State, sShe helped build the first canopy walk in all of North America, in Myakka River State Park. Today, park visitors can ascend to a 25-foot high wooden suspension bridge and walk 85 feet through the meandering branches of laurel and live oak trees dotted with epiphytes like resurrection fern and cardinal airplants. Then they can climb a 74-foot high tower. For a state known for its flatness, tThe structure offers a sweeping view of Myakka’s oak and palm forests.
Over the course of her career, Lowman studied forests in Australia, Belize, Panama, Cameroon, Brazil, Ethiopia, India and the U.S. She’s studied leaf chemistry, herbivory patterns and trees’ defense systems against predation, the effect of climate change upon forest health, insect pests, ecosystem services, and economic incentives for leaving forests standing. She’s published more than 100 peer-reviewed papers and four books.
In recent years her work shifted from studying to saving the world’s remaining rain forests.
This In January, she traveled to India on a Fullbright Senior Specialist Scholarship to work on forest conservation and establish a canopy research program.
“It will be for the next generations to decipher the secrets of the treetops,” Lowman says. “My work now is to make sure there are treetops left to study.”
She plans to work with K-12 science teachers across the state through the The Daily Planet.
In spite of her own lack of childhood science role models, Lowman has inspired school children the world over.
“The joy of sharing the canopy with children is really special.” Lowman says. “Having made canopy walkways available for kids and school groups is one of the most important things I hope to leave behind on my tombstone.”