Interview: Margaret Lowman

Bugs in trees and kids in labs get their due in a new book by “Canopy Meg”

"Canopy Meg," pioneer of forest ecology, recalls her adventures in her new book, It's a Jungle Up There. Bryson Voirin

Margaret Lowman, of the New College of Florida, pioneered forest ecology by building the first canopy walkway in North America, in 1991. She recalls her adventures as a scientist and single parent in It’s a Jungle Up There.

Why spend time in trees?

Almost 50 percent of life on earth is estimated to live in tree canopies, yet this was an unexplored region until about 25 years ago. Much of my work has involved solving the challenge of just getting into the treetops: inventing gadgets, refining hot air balloon design, creating canopy walkways, working from cherry pickers and construction cranes. Once up there, I discovered that insects eat four times more leaf material than we imagined.

Is that important?

Lots of things stress forests. And with forests becoming warmer, drier and more fragmented, insect outbreaks are predictably one of the first responses to climate change.

You've taken your two sons, now students at Princeton, on research trips.

Often I had to. When they were 7 and 5, we flew on an old prop plane into the jungles of Belize, where I was building a canopy walkway. We’ve slept under tarantulas clinging to the thatched ceiling of our hut and done research projects in Australia and Peru. But scientists weren’t always tolerant of my children. They were kicked out of Biosphere 2 in Arizona, where I was building a canopy access system. One colleague would not let them near the microscopes in a joint project, even though my children were very adept at identifying bugs. That attitude strengthened my conviction that women need to muscle into the science world.

It has been said that the mothers of young children are underrepresented in the sciences because they can't put in the long hours.

I have experienced chapters in my life when juggling parenting and career put me at a disadvantage. Science needs the brains of women. And since women are the only half of society that can bear children, our system needs to accommodate that. For example, listing child care in a grant budget would be a way to give women more opportunity.

Your canopy walkways are used in some places to promote tourism. Won't that harm these fragile ecosystems?

Canopy walkways have become a great opportunity for local people to create an income from a forest without logging it, and this is a success for conservation.

You say you make a living climbing trees. How did you get interested in that?

As a little girl in Elmira, New York, I made tree forts with my best friend, Betsy Hilfiger. We used to rescue birds fallen from their nests. Meanwhile, Betsy’s brother Tommy was in their basement stitching bell-bottom jeans. He went on to develop a clothing empire. Now the Hilfigers and I raise funds for the Meg Lowman Treetops Camp for disadvantaged girls, in Elmira, hoping to inspire them in science careers.

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