Humanity is exalted not because we are so far above other living creatures, but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life. E.O. Wilson, 1984

16 Jul 2016

Canopy Science and the climb above the glass ceiling

Sure footed scientists working 50 m above the forest floor

Tropical fieldwork requires brawn as well as brain. Slogging through forest, dealing with troublesome insects and oppressive heat can prove challenging, and the hard working conditions can often lead to ego-pumping bravado spouting from the mouths of its practitioners. More often than not, the typical field biologist is western university-educated, middle-class, white, and male (I am no exception). Although this in itself does not impact on the quality of science produced, it does reflect the prevailing norms which favour my sorts in academic research at the expense of equally or more talented women. The recent remarks of Tim Hunt revealed the views which many of the influential old guard generation of scientists are likely to share (although following the ensuing twitter storm, are unlikely to admit).

During recruitment, a woman must convince her employer she won’t fall pregnant as soon as she is hired, that raising her children will not detract from her research, and returning to tropical fieldwork, that they are physically and mentally strong enough to deal with the conditions. A man in the same position is almost never asked such questions but could be equally challenged by family life and fieldwork. Although attitudes have come a long way, and progress for equality continues, women continue to face discrimination within the sciences.

As proof to how false such presumptions are, one need only explore the literature surrounding my field of research to reveal the academic achievements of women against the odds. Accessing the canopy, the uppermost branches of our forests, has been described as our planet's final frontier for explorers and scientists alike.  Reliance on catapults, crossbows and cartridges to fire ropes into the trees, and then muscle, sweat and sheer determination to reach such heights is no mean feat. But it is the repetitive nature of sampling, often over many years, and the later untangling of data accumulated which can ultimately prove the greatest challenge.  

Such women are an inspiration, either to the young children they teach through education outreach, to their undergraduate students at universities, or to their fellow scientists out in the field. Their example demonstrates why science and academia MUST promote equality, and facilitate the careers of future female frontier breakers if it is to benefit from the talents of 50% of  the world's population. Here are just a few of the women who dominate this field and inspire me on a daily basis:

Dr. Lowman amongst the branches. Picture Wiki Commons.
Dr. Meg Lowman pioneered new access techniques to explore the tropical forests of northern Australia, and later went on to spread the story of canopy science to subsequent generations. In refusing to back down to what 1970s society expected of her, she has gone on to be a leading name in canopy exploration and science communication.

Dr. Nadkarni delivers her TED Talk on Canopy Science.

Nalini Nadkarni shocked her academic colleagues and department, not by suggesting that canopies could hold the secrets to the staggering levels of diversity in tropical forests, but by doggedly collecting years of data from the forests of Monte Verde in Costa Rica and later Barro Colorado Island in Panama. Watch her TED talk above to hear about her work.

Dr. Kalsum Yusah. Photo:
Dr. Kalsum Yusah strove to explore the upper limits of her native Bornean forests. During her PhD at the University of Cambridge, she regularly climbed 16 trees across the Danum Valley Conservation Area to examine the how insect communities were able to live together in such challenging conditions, facing ant stings and heat exhaustion. Find out more about her work here.

Dr. Nakabayashi attaches a radio-collar to an anesthetized Small-toothed palm civet
Dr. Myabi Nakabayashi, a post-doctoral student at Kyoto University is unafraid of challenges, having spent much of the past 5 years working across Borneo to study nocturnal and arboreal mammals. Rather than selecting “easy” routes of insect and plant studies, she is spending hours tracing the movements of arboreal civets and the elusive binturong, in an attempt to reveal their importance for the dispersal and regeneration of the next generation of forests.

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