The Daily Southerner, Tarboro, NC

Local News

September 19, 2013

Pioneering scientist speaks to Woman’s Club

'Canopy Meg'

TARBORO — The woman who discovered treetop canopy ecology, Dr. Meg Lowman, spoke to the Tarboro Woman’s Club at their meeting at The Fountains at the Albemarle Wednesday afternoon.

Lowman’s primary goal today is preserving the tropical forests of Ethiopia, but another important mission for her is encouraging girls to become scientists.

“I try to use it wisely, the fact that I am a pioneer and I managed to start a branch of science,” Lowman said. “I try to be really out there for young women…We just have to help girls recognize that they can do whatever they like.”

Her hope is that girls interested in science but afraid to pursue their interests will look at her accomplishments and think,

“If she can do it, I can do it, too.”

In 1979, on a scholarship-funded trip to Australia, Lowman stumbled upon what she calls “an amazing treasure on the top of a tree” – a tree canopy sustaining previously unknown species of life.

“We discovered tree canopies more recently than we went into outer space,” Lowman said, with  a laugh. “Over half of the species of the world live in the tops of trees, and a lot of them never come down to the ground.”

Lowman’s interest in treetop canopies has earned her the nickname “Canopy Meg,” and she brings a new perspective to a male-dominated field.

“I observe in my career that women think differently in certain situations,” Lowman said.

In the course of her fieldwork, Lowman has formed close connections with the Ethiopian natives. She has impressed upon the religious priests the importance of preserving the forests.

“Less than 5 percent of the forest is left in Ethiopia,” Lowman said. “Saving these canopies is very important to the people who live in countries like Ethiopia. The forests provide the fresh water for them, the medicine, shade, homes for the birds…”

Lowman has also educated the Ethiopian children about the species that live in the canopies.

“I made T-shirts of all the insects that are important to pollinate the crops, kind of like a ‘walking field guide,’” Lowman said.

Now a world-renowned scientist and director of the Nature Research Center at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Lowman began exploring the world as a girl growing up in upstate New York.

“I was a nerd, I was a geek. All my friends made fun of me. I made tree forts,” Lowman told the ladies in the Tarboro Woman’s Club.

“I just really liked nature. I was curious,” she said. “Originally, I thought I would be a forest ranger.”

As a girl, Lowman never had a mentor to teach her about career possibilities in science, so educating today’s generation, known as “Generation Z” about science is important to her. Lowman shared with the Tarboro Woman’s Club that she took a group of mobility-limited students in wheelchairs to the canopies, and the students discovered four new species.

She said America is 48th in global STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education, so we’ve got “a lot of work on our hands” to strengthen our skills in that area.

The Tarboro Woman’s Club demonstrated their commitment to educating local children about science at Wednesday’s meeting, as well. The club is donating terrariums, which club member Connie Hull describes as a “plant environment in a jar” to local elementary schools, in addition to educational books and animal beanie babies. The club is also making donations to the health department and Department of Social Services.

“One of the best memory makers for the children is hands-on (learning),” Hull said.

To Hull, a former educator, the terrariums will “encourage children to look around and explore the world around them.”

Lowman wrapped up her talk by autographing her book “Life in the Treetops” for several club members, among them world traveler and tennis champion Bea Burnette. Despite her general dislike for insects, Burnette said she was “captivated” and “totally fascinated” with Lowman’s discussion of the treetop species.

 

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