NCSU scientist inspired by life in the treetops

Scientist studies forest canopies worldwide, leads new Nature Research Center in Raleigh

CorrespondentMarch 7, 2011 

  • Opening in 2012 in downtown Raleigh, it will feature 80,000 square feet of exhibit and research space.

    The center will engage public participation and forge partnerships with state agencies, universities, corporations and private foundations.

    It will serve as a model for green building and design.

    It's centerpiece will be The Daily Planet - a globe-shaped, four-story multimedia area to showcase science.

    SOURCE: Nature Research Center

  • Meg Lowman

    Title: Director, Nature Research Center; professor, College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences at N.C. State University.

    Age: 57

    Family: Sons Eddie and James; husband, Michael Brown

    Why she is a scientist: "As early as age 3, I was passionate about nature: birds, trees, bugs and things that make our environment function for a healthy planet. Even though women were not typically field biologists at that time, I was determined to become a 'doctor of the planet' and to make the world a better place for our children. Through the NRC, I feel that this exciting dream is coming to fruition."

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 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 explored the interactions of species living in the tip-tops of trees 50 to 200 feet tall. But her new job will require her to descend from the canopies she loves 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 exhibits about the process of science. Museum spokesperson Jonathan Pishney says the center will house four new research programs: space observation, earth observation, genomics and paleontology/geology. Visitors will peer into the world of scientists at work through large glass windows in each program's lab.

The main attraction will be The Daily Planet, a four-story sphere that will look like Earth on the outside with a multimedia theater inside.

But don't expect Lowman to stay away from a forest for long. Since starting at the museum last July, she has 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.

Life with 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 rain forest tree leaves.

Lowman trained under Joseph Connell, known for developing theories about species diversity. It was a transitional period for women, who fought for increased liberties but were also pressured to stay 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.

But Lowman's in-laws and rural community frowned upon those pursuits. "I had the scarlet S on my chest," Lowman says. When she was forced to choose, science won. She became a single mom, trotting her kids with her into the field when it was safe, learning how to balance children with her science.

Climbing upward

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 her graduate advisers with nudging her to enter the canopies. Previously, scientists studied trees with binoculars from the forest floor, she says.

In the early '70s, Lowman used scaffolds to study birch trees. 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 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 up close how trees thwart attacks from insects, birds and other animals. 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, too.

Branching out

Lowman gave guest lectures in her children's science classes. Later, she worked with the JASON Project, which connects scientists in the field with schoolchildren in classrooms across the globe. She received e-mails 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, Fla. She helped build the first canopy walkway in North America, at Williams College in Massachusetts in 1991 - a feat she repeated a decade later in Florida at Myakka River State Park. Today, Myakka visitors can ascend to a 25-foot-high wooden suspension bridge and walk 85 feet through the branches of laurel and live oak trees dotted with epiphytes like resurrection fern and cardinal air plants. Then they can climb a 74-foot high tower. The structure offers a sweeping view of Myakka's oak and palm forests.

Lowman has studied forests in Australia, Belize, Panama, Cameroon, Brazil, Ethiopia, India and the U.S. She has studied leaf chemistry, herbivory patterns and trees' defense systems, the effect of climate change on forest health, insect pests, ecosystem services and economic incentives for leaving forests standing. She has 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. In January, she traveled to India on a Fulbright 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 Daily Planet.

"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."

T. DeLene Beeland: scwriter.db@gmail.com

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