While on site, Meg Lowman is leading the Academy's mission to explore, explain, and sustain life as its Director of Global Initiatives and Lindsay Chair of Botany/Senior Scientist in Plant Conservation. In the field, she's an innovator in canopy biodiversity studies, developing new ways for researchers to map the rich treetop ecosystems.
A Scientist By Many Other Names
Nicknamed the “real-life Lorax” by National Geographic, “Einstein of the treetops” by the Wall Street Journal, and affectionately known as “the mother of canopy research,” biologist Meg Lowman—a pioneer in canopy ecology—has a lockdown on some of science’s best nicknames, and it couldn’t be more deserved.
Lowman has worked tirelessly for more than 30 years to map biodiversity in forest canopies—an environment so expansive (and so critical to global systems) that it’s often referred to as “the eighth continent.” When she picked up a slingshot and rope in the '70s (as a way of sending a climbing line skyward), she became one of the first people to study trees from above instead of below. In the years that followed, she helped design hot-air balloons and treetop walkways now used by scientists and students around the world to study the little-known ecosystems high above the forest floor.
In addition to her efforts to document canopy biodiversity, Lowman also works to champion forest conservation around the world through a series of creative (and highly effective) projects. And regardless of where she is in the world—in classrooms, in the field, on city streets—she tries to actively serve as a role model for women and minorities, inspiring and mentoring people who never imagined themselves as scientists or conservationists.
Protecting Ethiopia’s Church Forests
Though you wouldn’t know it to look at Ethiopia today, it was once a heavily forested area home to rich biodiversity. In 2009, Lowman forged what may seem an unlikely partnership with Christian Orthodox clergy in Ethiopia, whose “church forests”—small patches of wooded areas surrounding the churches themselves—comprise some of the only landscape not cleared for agriculture.
Lowman’s surveys of these church forests found that they’re not only home to a large proportion of Ethiopia’s endangered plant species, but also providers of important ecosystem services (such as fresh water and pollinators) for the region’s local people. With agriculture eroding forest boundaries at an alarming rate—one that points to their disappearance in less than ten years—Lowman realized something had to be done, and quickly.
By partnering with the Coptic priests, villagers of all ages, and other local stakeholders, Lowman helped to create new stewards of the church forests—Ethiopians who became experts on and advocates for the small remaining patches of green. Since then, the effort has spread outside the country itself, with everyone from individuals to U.S. school groups raising money to build fences around the church forests’ perimeters—a deceptively simple response that’s already yielding big results.
Wheelchairs in the Canopy
When Lowman says “science is for everyone,” she means it—and that extends to access to the canopy itself. “To explore the canopy we climb ropes, not trees,” she points out. “And in the lab we use microscopes, computers, and minds, which have no limits.” In conjunction with Baker University’s William Miller, Lowman began “Into the Canopy With Wheelchairs and Tardigrades,” a tree-climbing research opportunity for undergrad students who are (usually) confined to wheelchairs.
“Believe it or not, a student can go vertically up a tree who might not be able to walk horizontally across the forest floor,” says Lowman. And student and program-participant Rebecca Tripp—who thought she had to give up on her dream of being a field biologist after a spinal injury six years ago—agrees. “I guess I just really want people to know whether they’re disabled or not, anything is possible,” says Tripp. “If there’s something you’re passionate about, go for it.”
A Sustainable First
Lowman is no stranger to firsts, but when she joined the Academy in 2013, she notched another by becoming the institution’s first Chief of Science and Sustainability, a position responsible for overseeing more than 60 research scientists and aquarium biologists, as well as nearly 46 million scientific specimens from around the world.
Collectively know as the Institute for Biodiversity Science and Sustainability (IBSS), the research arm of the Academy encompasses expeditions around the world; community outreach; public engagement; captive breeding programs; collaborations with organizations focused on sustainability, ecology, and climate change; and so much more. With the added expertise of more than 100 international Research and Field Associates and 300 distinguished Fellows, IBSS is at the forefront of efforts to understand the nature and future of life on Earth.