October 25, 2014

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Icon: Margaret D. Lowman

Rainforest canopy researcher, professor of biology and environmental studies at New College, author, age 55

Art Levy | 2/1/2009


[Photo: Carlton Ward Jr.]
» I grew up in Elmira, N.Y., and my best friend was my neighbor Betsy Hilfiger. She and I used to make little tree forts. I’m embarrassed to tell you this, but we would follow our dads when they mowed the lawn, and we took the worms that got cut in half and tried to bandage them back together. We thought we would be vets, but that career failed because no worms survived. What’s funny is she has an older brother named Tommy Hilfiger, and we used to beg him to come out and play with us, but he never would because he was in the basement of their house sewing bell-bottomed jeans. So we ended up with our tree forts, and he ended up with a clothing empire that could pay for all my rainforest research.

» My parents were very patient with me. I used to shriek for them to stop the car when I saw a wildflower I hadn’t seen before. They were really very nice to allow me to be this very strange child.

» I went off to Australia for graduate school because I got a very nice scholarship. During my very early weeks over there, the head of the department kindly took me aside and said, ‘Why on earth are you getting a Ph.D. when you’ll only get married and have children?’

» Being a woman has caused me to really make sure I’m doing good work, pay attention to details, be organized and be productive. I was also a single mom, which is like a scarlet letter, at least I felt it was. I had to make sure I could do my share of research and hold onto my job and be a good parent at the same time.

» The Ecological Society of America, of which I’m vice president for education and human resources, did a survey that showed 50% of Ph.D.s in ecology are going to women but less than 10% of women are ending up in leadership positions. And the pay scale is about 30% less for the equivalent job, female to male, so there are still some glass ceilings that women need to crack in the upper echelons of science.

» In the forest, it’s very important to cultivate the ability to know where a snake might lurk and be cognizant of that little rustling sound that’s a swarm of army ants. That’s my work, to be able to recognize those things, which gives me a sense of comfort in the forest. On the other hand, you have to keep me from walking off the curb when the light is red.

» I’m not a person who loves to go climbing for recreation. I take it pretty seriously.

» Oreos have become kind of my middle name. I’m pretty famous around the world for bringing Oreos to every village I go to.

» I told my children if the world starts to fall apart, we’ll move to the Amazon because, quite frankly, any village will take you in. They are so kind and gentle.

» I’ve eaten a lot of insects because they’ve been offered to me, but I’ve been in some situations where we actually did run out of food. Once, I survived on raisins for three days, and it was pretty darn OK.

» It’s really very sobering and I think humbling to go and see people who collect their food from the wild and remind ourselves of where we come from.

» My sons came with me on many of my trips. There wasn’t such a thing as staying home alone at 7 years old. I’ll be honest. You try to con your kids. ‘We will count beetles today, and it’s going to be really fun!’ We turned science into a game, and they became my best field assistants in a sense.

» I’ve really enjoyed working with (Florida CFO) Alex Sink as her climate change advisor because I see now that scientists have to talk to politicians. We have to get in the room and sit at the table if we’re going to have good environmental policy. We need to communicate the facts to the policy-makers.

» I thought of everything, like taking pictures, hiring a monkey and training it and all this other stuff that would allow me not to climb the trees. But I had to learn. It was 1979, and I was the first person in Australia to do that kind of work.

» It was extraordinary. Millions of things were living up there, and we didn’t know that back then.

» I got involved with the French, designing some of the inflatable gadgets. The hot-air balloon has to be about the most fun thing I’ve ever done in my life. It’s a fabulous sensation to actually be floating among other organisms who are not afraid of you. There are snakes that can almost fly through the canopy. There are monkeys busily hunting fruit and having fun playing. There are amazing, colorful birds and millions of insects. There’s a different sense of being a human in that environment. You’re really one of them. It’s humbling and exhilarating.

» Eco-tourism is a good intersection of economics and conservation. It’s becoming a very good solution in some of the tropical areas where I work. Florida doesn’t have a lot of eco-tourism inland. That’s untapped opportunity, perhaps.

» In Florida, we have invasive species. We have biodiversity threats. We have climate change. We have land-use challenges. We have infectious disease threats. And we have watershed issues. Where this is bad is it’s a liability, but it’s also an opportunity to get the best researchers to Florida to study these issues.

» I have 1,000 lamb chop recipes if you ever need any because I was a wife of a sheep farmer for eight years, but all the while I was starving to do my research.

Tags: Florida Icon, Education, Environment

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