Tree Canopy Researcher Honored for Public Service in Science
Nalini M. Nadkarni was recently named recipient of the prestigious 2010 National Science Board (NSB) Public Service Award as an individual who has made significant contributions in public understanding of science in the United States.
"We are pleased to recognize Nalini for her outstanding and truly unique achievements in bringing her research to the public," said Steven Beering, NSB Chairman. "Not only has she been a leader in the forest canopy research field, but she has actively engaged in forging connections with the general public and involving non-traditional audiences in scientific research."
The NSB Public Service Award honors individuals and groups that have made substantial contributions to increasing public understanding of science and engineering in the United States. These contributions may be from a wide variety of areas including mass media, education and/or training programs, entertainment, and non-profit and for-profit corporations.
"I am honored by the recognition provided by the National Science Board," said Nadkarni. "I believe that the most critical problems facing society today are the widening gaps between humans and nature, and between science and society. Scientific researchers can – and should – play a role in the communication of science far beyond academia because of their passion and their knowledge of scientific topics."
Nadkarni's work epitomizes a goal of the National Science Foundation, which is to support cutting edge research that has broader impacts on society. She says, "Communication with colleagues is a critical part of the scientific process. My work expands the definition of ‘colleague’ to rap singers, modern dancers, and incarcerated people, who in turn provide fresh insights into the workings of nature. My vision is to turn public outreach by academics from burden to benefit."
In January 2010, she was awarded a grant from the Ecosystems Program at NSF to initiate her "Research Ambassador Program", which will support her efforts to recruit and train other academic scientists to carry out non-traditional science outreach.
Nadkarni has long made communication with the public an integral part of her work. In 1994, she co-founded The International Canopy Network, a non-profit organization that fosters communication among researchers, educators, and conservationists. Her work consistently crosses disciplines and overcomes traditional boundaries, particularly by inviting artists to help distill and disseminate her work. In recent years, Nadkarni invited a hip hop singer and at-risk middle school students to her forest sites to write their own rap songs about nature, and collaborated with a modern dance company to create a dance production about rainforest conservation. She has appeared in numerous television documentaries, and was featured as a canopy scientist in a 2001 Emmy-award-winning National Geographic television documentary on tropical forest canopies.
Nadkarni’s work engages people with limited access to science education, including people in assisted living centers, military barracks, hospitals, and prisons. Her collaborative "Sustainable Prisons Project" with the Washington State Department of Corrections brings nature, science, and sustainability projects to incarcerated men and women. Inmates directly participate in conservation projects, including cultivation of threatened mosses, captive rearing of endangered Oregon Spotted Frogs, growing prairie plants for restoration, and raising rare butterflies – all behind prison walls.
Her colleagues are impressed with Nadkarni’s accomplishments. "Few people in the world can boast both the scientific pedigree and the commitment to public service of Nalini Nadkarni," said Les Purce, President of The Evergreen State College. "Her desire to engage non-traditional audiences in scientific inquiry has taken her to prisons and churches, boardrooms and bookstores, public television programs and music recording studios, nail salons and tattoo parlors."
Nadkarni is a Member of the Faculty at The Evergreen State College, in Olympia, WA, where she teaches environmental studies. She is also an Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Forest Resources at the University of Washington, where she received her doctorate in 1983. Her research is on the ecology of tropical and temperate forest canopies, focusing on the roles that canopy-dwelling plants play in whole forests. Her research in Washington and in Monteverde, Costa Rica is supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Geographic Society.
Past individual recipients of the NSB Public Service Award include: Ira Flatow, Alan Alda, Bill Nye the Science Guy®; and Jane Goodall.
Nadkarni will receive the NSB Public Service Award at the National Science Board Annual Awards Dinner at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, DC on May 4, 2010. Three additional award recipients will also be honored that evening: Bruce Alberts of the University of California, San Francisco, with the Vannevar Bush Award; The Expanding Your Horizons Network with the group NSB Public Service Award; and Subhash Khot of New York University with the Alan T. Waterman Award.
About the National Science Board
The NSB is the 25-member policymaking body for the National Science Foundation and advisory body to the President and Congress on science and engineering issues. Drawn primarily from universities and industry, and representing a variety of science and engineering disciplines and geographic areas, NSB members are selected for their eminence in research, education, or public service, and records of distinguished service. The NSB has 24 members who serve six-year terms. The 25th member is the NSF Director, an ex officio member of the NSB. More information is available at: www.nsf.gov/nsb.
Lisa-Joy Zgorski, NSF
Jason Wettstein, The Evergreen State College
Jennifer Richards, NSF