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The way Nalini Nadkarni see things, your typical vine maple tree moves 186,540 miles a year.
She calculated this distance by applying paint to the ends of a few limbs and holding paper to them as they moved in the wind. The resulting piece of art not only yielded interesting data, but conveyed how an organism believed to be static actually packs a lot of dynamism.
"When I multiplied out how far the twigs move in two minutes I calculated how far they move. That's when I learned [the tree] moves a distance equal to seven times around the world," said Nadkarni, a forest canopy researcher who begins work at the University of Utah this fall, leading its new Center for Science and Mathematics Education.
Over the course of a 30-year career, Nadkarni has become renowned for unorthodox ways of exploring the natural world and engaging people in science. She first drew attention for adapting rock climbing gear to research epiphytes plants such as orchids and moss that grow on other plants and other life flourishing far from view in tree tops.
"At the time the only thing people knew about the forest canopies was what fell to the ground. There were whole communities of epiphytes that no one knew about," said U. biologist Denise Dearing.
Dearing and others in the U. biology department, which is giving tenured appointments to both Nadkarni and her husband Jack Longino, are elated with the hires.
"She is someone who thinks completely outside the academic box," said U. biology professor Don Feener, who helped recruit Nadkarni, 56, and is a longtime friend of her husband. "We needed a person that could talk to the academic community and she has the bona fides to do that, but we also need someone who can talk to the community at large and inspire the state Legislature."
Former science dean Hugo Rossi came out of retirement two years ago to launch the Center for Science and Mathematics Education. The center's goal is to shepherd science students toward teaching careers and to explore ways to engage the entire community with science.
"Nalini will bring in fresh new ideas," Rossi said. "She gets people involved in research projects and by being involved they learn about science. She has been most successful with incarcerated people."
A few years ago, Nadkarni won grants from Washington's state prison system to draw inmates into moss research and conservation work, such as growing native grasses and rearing frogs for release in the wild. She hopes to develop a similar program for Utah State Prison and has already met with corrections chief Tom Patterson to tour the prison and share ideas.
Longino, an authority in ant entomology, and Nadkarni have taught environmental studies for the past two decades at Evergreen, where Nadkarni co-founded the conservation organization International Canopy Network in 1994. It moves to Salt Lake City with the couple, but their two children won't. One is entering Whitman College this fall and their oldest just graduated from Tufts University.
Nadkarni is co-author of the 2008 book Between Earth and Sky: Our Intimate Connections with Trees, and wrote an award-winning children's science book on rain forests in the Kingfisher Voyages series.
In her new role bringing science to the masses in Utah, she said, her key objective is to close two disturbing gaps that have opened between people and nature, and between science and society.
"With increasing urbanization and entertainment and communication systems becoming virtual rather than actual, people are moving further and further from nature, with nature suffering for it," she said. Meanwhile, people have lost interest in science, in part because it seems so inaccessible and arcane. She hopes to train scientists how to convey their work to a larger audience.
The science education center will be housed in the renovated Thomas building after the Utah Museum of Natural History moves out. Rossi has served as interim director during a prolonged search for a permanent chief who is expected to build its programs.
"We need someone that thinks outside the normal avenues. The rest of us, who can't go that far, can be her foot soldiers," Feener said. "I can't give a public talk like she can, with the energy and storytelling abilities she brings."
As an example of Nadkarni's ability to connect, Feener pointed out her "TreeTop Barbie" program. She gathered abandoned dolls and had them rigged up in climbing gear, turning them into canopy-research action figures to be given to school children attending science programs.
"Again, it's an outside-the-box idea that we hope will recruit young girls into thinking like a scientist," Feener said.
A professor of environmental studies and forest canopy researcher at Washington's Evergreen State College, Nadkarni is coming to the U. to lead its new Center for Science and Mathematics Education. Nadkarni is an award-winning author and popular speaker who starts at the U. this fall with a tenured appointment in biology. She also helped start a forest conservation organization and ground-breaking programs in Washington prisons that engage inmates in scientific research.
To learn more about her, visit her Web site http://www.nalininadkarni.com.
Hear her speak about bringing science into prisons at http://bit.ly/b4CZre.