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Profile of Nalini Nadkarni

Aired November 18, 2012 - 14:00   ET



NALINI NADKARNI, FOREST ECOLOGIST: This right here in this spot, this forest, on this branch with these mosses is where I feel most at home. My enthusiasm in spreading this is because like a religious evangelist, if you know you have the truth, you want to make sure everybody has it.

JERRY FREILICH, OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK: It's not for the faint of heart, climbing up in these big trees. She is a boon for science and she is a boon for science education.



DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN ANCHOR: St. Nalini, that's just one nickname. Add science evangelist and queen of the treetops to the list as well. When you meet forest ecologist, Nalini Macorni, for the first time, you'll immediately know why she's earned these titles.


MICHAEL HARDMAN, DEAN, UNIVERSITY OF UTAH: One minute with Nalini and she can transport you from being in a learning situation in an isolated setting to being out in the forest.


GUPTA: She's climbed trees for a living for three decades with a seemingly endless supply of energy, enthusiasm and a tad of quirky. Nalini is constantly on the go. She's racing to discover all she can about every tree on the planet.


NADKARNI: I have felt this increasing sense of urgency to understand what's up here, to document what's up here because we're losing it. I feel like I just can't stop. I can't stop. And I have to work harder to make a new program, to reach a new audience.


GUPTA: Nalini is reaching new audiences, bringing her love of nature and science to congregations, kids and a group that just might come as a surprise.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's not just sitting in a cell being stagnant.

NADKARNI: People come up to me and say, my God, I had no idea that prisoners in prisons could be like this. I would like to bring what I have been privileged to understand to everybody else out there, even if they never get to put a rope up a tree and climb it themselves.


GUPTA: Nalini brings that same passion to everyone, including CNN's Poppy Harlow, who accepted the challenge to join this force of nature in her own environment. Welcome to THE NEXT LIST. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta.


NADKARNI: We are in the Quinel rain forest, part of the Olympic National Park on the west side of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. This is considered like the best example of rain forests.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And this is your laboratory?

NADKARNI: Yes, you could consider this my lab. This is where I carry out my research, my field research. It's where I come to ask questions of the forest. There are two places I feel most at home in terms of my work.

One is in Costa Rica, in Monteverdi, Costa Rica, where I spent a lot of time, and this is the other place What is similar to both of them is the sense of what's going on up in the canopy, who are these plants and what are they doing in the forest and how can I find out about what their role is in the forest as a whole? That's what I want to know.

My name is Nalini Nadkarni and I'm a forest ecologist, science educator, a mother and a nature evangelist. The first time I climbed this tree using this mountain climbing gear and realized, my gosh, I'm going up this rope.

I can go up to the top of this giant rain forest tree. Why didn't anybody tell me about this earlier? I'm so excited about this world that could be mine. I could just enter into it.

HARLOW: What did you think is the most important discovery you've made being up here?

NADKARNI: The fact that these maple trees and many other trees actually put out roots from their own branches and trunks that go underneath these mats of mosses. If you all just dig into this a little bit, I don't want to wreck it up.

This soil has been basically made by these mosses and these ferns. As they die and decompose, they create the soil. So essentially it's a nutrient source like fertilizer for your garden, but they're all here on these branches and trunks of trees way high above the forest floor.

And some of these are actually capable of pushing out roots from their own trunks. So nobody knew that before. Nobody knew that trees could put out roots into their own canopy and sort of suck nutrients out of their own tenets. So when I published that, I think people realized that, my gosh, there's more going on in the canopy that is going on that we never knew about.

JOHN PRESTON, PARK RANGER, OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK: You have all these trees that are lined up because they started on the same piece of solid wood, and then that last piece, the moss, what role does it play? We were clueless, but Nalini found out.

I'm John Preston. I'm a park ranger at Olympic National Park. Nalini helps me educate the public about the importance of this wonderful ecosystem.

Her studies led to many branches. It's now moving from that initial important discovery into all these small, little roles and people are pursuing that for their scientific careers.

NADKARNI: My big goal is to bring what we're seeing, smelling, understanding right here in this canopy to other scientists and perhaps more importantly to other people around the world. I think ultimately that's the only way we're going to save our planet. We're going to save ourselves and our connections to the planet.


GUPTA: Coming up, unlikely research partners. Nalini inspires hardened criminals to go green.



PATRICK GLEBE, SUPERINTENDENT, STAFFORD CREEK CORRECTIONS: We have a variety of offenders who commit a variety of crimes. Right now, we have 110 offenders in the facility serving the rest of their life 400 offenders probably in for murder, a quarter of a population sex offenders and about a third of our population is in for violent assault.

TOBY: Every morning I wake up and it's a shock to find, you know, I'm still here, but then I have this duty, this job, that makes it sufferable. Hi, I'm Toby. I'm an inmate at Stafford Creek Correctional Center.

JAMES: I'm free except, well, the fence behind us and the tower. I mean, I walk around out here. I have anywhere the gardens are, I can go. My name is James. I'm an inmate here at Stafford Creek Correction Center and I work with the sustainability Christmas projects.

NADKARNI: When I first approached the prison administrators, they were really skeptical and suspicious of why would a scientist want to come into the prisons and do research.

GLEBE: This was something different in the prison system that's different than any other prisons in the state, but they want to soak up the information. They took up a lot of the research themselves and made the plant project a success at Stafford Creek.

NADKARNI: Very rapidly they understood how fantastic it is to be able to nurture plants or to be able to read an article and figure out something that has to do with research.

CARRI LEROY, CO-DIRECTOR, SUSTAINABILITY IN PRISONS PROJECT: The Sustainability in Prisons Project is a partnership between scientists and corrections, incarcerated individuals and staff that work in prisons.

The work that our inmate technicians do on our conservation projects both in terms of raising prairie plants, in terms of endangered frogs and endangered butterflies is not just in the rearing of these organisms, but in understanding how to rear these organisms and also in understanding their ecology and life history.

JAMES: I sow a lot of seeds. Plant the garden out here, onions, vegetables and stuff, watering. I look forward to sunny days so I can work outside, and when it's not sunny, we have the greenhouses to work in. It's very gratifying.

TOBY: My life before prison had virtually nothing to do with horticulture. I always kept a small garden, I'm not a stranger to it, but on this level and with this depth of knowledge creating the soil and learning the Latin names for all the plants and, you know, seeing the sheer numbers going out and making a huge difference in the environment that we're trying to effect, it's amazing.

DENNIS AUBRY, CANOPY RESEARCHER: It's really a paradigm shifting, a whole new way to look at incarceration as an institution. My name is Dennis Aubry. I'm a canopy researcher with Nalini Nadkarni and a graduate student at the Evergreen State College.

What she's done has turned Washington State into a leader of sustainability and conservation of prisons. I think she's a genius in every sense of the word. I think a genius is not just a measure of intellect, but a measure of innovation and creativity.

GLEBE: Since offenders started recycling garbage, it's probably saved us $100,000 a year, and then our food composting program probably saves another $80,000 a year.

HARLOW: Why do prisoners need to learn about sustainability and composting and recycling? Why bring that to them?

NADKARNI: I think in the case of many people, and especially many inmates who have acted irresponsibly in one way or another, a lot of it has been about lack of mind from this, about not knowing what the consequences of actions are on a person, violence or whatever.

So by offering the opportunity to prisoners to say, you know, you need to hoe this garden, you need to water it carefully, well, that gives them a sense of responsibility, it gives them some skills when they get back out.

TOBY: Working with Nalini has been a very good aspect of my prison sentence, if there is any such thing I could attribute that to her.

JAMES: It makes me think I'm doing something, I'm accomplishing something. I'm -- how do I explain it? I don't look at fences. I don't see the fence ns anymore. When I'm out here, they're not here.




NADKARNI: So when I come home, one of my wonderful duties is to attend to these mosses that I am desperately trying to keep alive. When I first came here, Salt Lake City was very dry.

It's sort of the antithesis of the moist, green mossy rainy Pacific North West where I lived for 20 years. And I guess, there was something in me that really wanted to almost reconstruct what I feel is so important in my life.

HARLOW: Why should people care what's up there, what's in the canopy?

NADKARNI: I think you should want to get acquainted with the organisms that are living up there. I think there is more and more thought about the practical aspects, for example, medicinal drugs.

I was involved with a project that was run by the New York Botanical Garden about 10 years ago where they were really systematically looking at possible anti-cancer, anti-AIDS compounds that could come from natural substances, plants, animals, marine life and so forth.

So they sent me out to the canopy to look for canopy plants that might have these anti-cancer or anti-AIDS with these anti-virus substances. So I went up and climbed trees and I brought them back. They are still in the processes of refining them, extracting them and so forth, but about 25 percent of our prescription drugs actually come from plants.

So this love of trees, again, I'm not exactly sure where it came from, I just know I have it. I think it started from childhood. My dad was a scientist from Hindu, India, and my mother was an orthodox Jew.

There were five kids in the family and there was a lot of cross-inter disciplinary kind of living, you know, with a Hindu and a Jew and an Indian, and an American. And as the middle child and the third daughter in a family that was essentially an Indian family where girls are not valued as highly as boys are, I think that it was important to me to have an identity.

And that, I guess, was one way of establishing it, of saying, this is my thing. This connection I have with trees is mine, and for whatever reason, when I would come home from school, I would throw my backpack in the house and go climb a tree.

And learn that, in fact, there is a whole area of academia of life, of understanding nature and communicating it with people. When I first started out doing canopy research, I was one of a very small number, literally a handful of people who were doing canopy research.

It wasn't a field of study. I happened to meet a guy named Don Perry who was pioneering techniques of using mountain-climbing equipment to get up into the forest canopy. He taught me how to shoot lines way crossbow. He taught me to you to use the cross lines to get up there.

This is a master caster. This is something I invented actually to get a line up in the tree to begin with. Yes! Then I felt like, OK, I can conquer this world. I know I can go into the canopy now and discover what I need to discover.

So when I came back to my major professor and I said, I have discovered what I know I need to do. I have to find out about these canopy plants that are living up there.

And my major professor said, you know, Nalini, with all the questions on the forest floor, why do you have to get up into the treetops? Keep your feet on the ground. And I was discouraged but not that discouraged. And I said, no, I know there is stuff going on.

So I got a grant myself, and it allowed me then to go do a comparison of the canopy-dwelling plants in the Costa Rican cloud forest to the Washington State rain forest and that's what I ddi for my dissertation. I made some really cool discoveries and they were published. You know, as a graduate student, published on the cover of science magazines was really a big deal.

And people I think kind of woke up and said, this is not just Tarzan and Jane felt, this is real science. Maybe she's on to something here.


GUPTA: She was on to something. When we return, Nalini leaves the treetops for an even higher calling.



NADKARNI: So these chairs, these wonderful hanging chairs, what are they about in the lab of professional biology here? For me it was important to always have with me some reminder, some physical thing that reminds me of what I'm really about, which is about understanding trees and forest canopies.

HARDMAN: We looked for the right person. I'm Michael Hardman. I'm the interim senior vice president here at the University of Utah and dean of the College of Education.

One of the major, major reasons we were looking for a center for science and math education to take us into new places was to connect the university to the community, to outreach work, to be able to work with schools, work with communities.

One minute with Nalini, and she can take you, she can transport you from being in a learning situation in an isolated setting to being out in the forest.

NADKARNI: For basketball courts, there is a special kind of tree that is used for basketball courts. It's called maple, sugar maple. Very hard wood, very flexible, and it is perfect for bouncing a basketball.

So what we did today was really the first time I think anybody has done this because I never really made the connection between sports and science before I came here to Utah. There is all this energy and enthusiasm and knowledge for sports here.

Can I somehow connect the science to it? So what we did today was really bring it to the kids and say, let's take a couple hours to talk about and show you guys how cool sports is, how cool science is, and how very cool they are when you put them together.

ELIAS: Inside we have orientations and outside we don't have that many.

GRAYSON: I like it because you can see things you've never seen before.

HARLOW: When did you decide I need to teach this to others and not this classroom?

NADKARNI: So it was sort of this growing sense that was going on in society where conservation groups were saying, what is going on with our rain forest habitats?

Deforestation over harvesting forest fragmentation I began seeing in my own children and their friends that they were not outside running around outside climbing trees. They weren't connecting.

To me it seemed like, well, I don't know what I can do that's going to be major. I'm not going to change the world. I'm not a politician. And it seemed to me with my skills as a scientist, my desire to communicate, I think all of those started to contribute to thinking about how do I communicate beyond science.

HARLOW: Are you succeeding?

NADKARNI: Little by little, I believe I'm making progress. I believe when I look into the eyes of a prisoner who hasn't been on the outside for 20 years and he is nurturing a small seedling that we gave him to raise for reforestation on the outside, I believe I've made progress that way. When I sit in an Episcopal church and I talk about spirituality.

First, how did we participate in the region of spirituality? Second, how might the awareness of this participation lead us to be a better steward of our trees? I see people shaking his or her head, and that's when they come up afterwards and say, would you be able to map the trees in my yard as well? I think that's progress.

So these obviously were not part of the original churchyard.

SUSAN SOLEIL, DIRECTOR, INTERFAITH POWER AND LIGHT: I found her to be a bridge builder, and she was reaching out to a community that was saying, I'm not sure about you, and by the time she was done, they adored her.

I'm Susan Soleil. I'm the director of Interfaith Power and Light. Nalini does stick out a little bit, and I think that's one of the reasons why it works well. It's fun to have someone that comes with the cultural diversity that Nalini comes, and the knowledge and passion, I think, ignites everyone.

NADKARNI: If I could stir them up and say, look, your religious texts say trees are important. I'm not telling you that, your bible is telling you that, your Koran is telling you that, your Buddhist scriptures are telling you that trees are important from a religious and a spiritual standpoint.

Then I don't even have to bring ecology into it because then you will start thinking about trees special as sacred and something to be cared for just on the basis of your own religion. Whether it's through being on television programs or whether it's by a congregation at a time talking about trees and spirituality.

Whatever it takes, I think my dream is to help reconnect and connect the world to how important nature is for us. If we can do that, I think what follows is that we will take better care of this.

And if I can die as I hope, trapped to a tree branch in the tropical cloud forest letting my nutrients sort of flow into the trees, knowing that I helped that cause, then I will die happy. And maybe that sounds corny, but I actually really believe that.


GUPTA: Nalini isn't nearly finished with her work. She's lending her expertise and her voice to an NPR radio series on trees. Nalini has even broken into the fashion industry. She's working on a line of what she calls botanically correct clothing.

They include tags with information about the tree pattern being worn. It's all pretty fascinating stuff. You see she's an explorer, a professor, a mentor and now a designer.

But perhaps Nalini's greatest innovation is her ability to interpret science to the masses. That's what earns her a spot on THE NEXT LIST.

For more on Malina, you can check us out online. You can follow us on Twitter, even like us on Facebook, and also log on to my live stream. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. See you back here next week.