Tapestry Thinking with Nalini Nadkarni
By Michelle Frank
Read the previous piece in this RESILIENCE series here: Moss In Prisons
Last month we published an article about the science education programs created by a remarkable canopy ecologist — Nalini Nadkarni. For over fifteen years, Nadkarni has brought earth scientists, NASA astrobiology educators, prison reform advocates and prisons together, increasing access to nature for incarcerated individuals. Her projects not only support prisoners and the planet — they also uncover patterns in the acquisition of science knowledge among underrepresented students, both inside and outside of prison walls. You can read more about Nadkarni’s prison education initiatives here.
Nadkarni is committed to working across difference, often in unexpected ways. Prison education programs are just one part of her approach. In addition to vigorous publication within the scientific academy, she forges collaborations between artists and academics, rappers and ecologists, dancers and environmental research teams, engaging everyone from religious adherents to sports fans to the fashion industry to toy manufacturers. Nadkarni has over 130 scholarly publications and seven books about ecology for adults, and children; she has appeared in short films, television shows print, digital media, and radio. Her work has been funded more than forty times by leading science institutions, she served as a member on nine Advisory Boards, and she has been honored by twelve women’s leadership programs. And she participates regularly in invited seminars and workshops across the United States.
Hers is an ever-expanding dialogue about the importance of our ecosystem.
In the early 2000s, as Nadkarni’s first prison education initiative was gaining traction, she brought a group of dancers and choreographers into a rainforest in Washington State and to a cloud forest in Costa Rica. In the forest, she offered immersive classes and lectures about the forest canopy. Afterwards, the dance company created a full-length performance called Biome which toured San Francisco and Seattle. Biome audiences heard a ten-minute talk about rainforest ecology before each performance, and conservation groups set up tables in the lobby afterward. Later, Nadkarni and the ensemble’s choreographer co-authored a paper about their partnership. In a chapter for Building Sustainability with the Arts: Proceedings of the 2nd National EcoArts Australis Conference, the authors found that Biome audience members signed up for tree-planting, bird-censusing and other conservation projects in significant numbers after the performances.
Not long after Biome, Nadkarni reached out further. She brought rappers into rainforests, conducted outreach to religious institutions to deliver sermons about the roles that trees play in scripture and religious symbolism, and began writing about the invisible importance trees hold for sports fans, highlighting the forest’s essential contributions to athletics — from baseball bats to basketball floors, and beyond.
Nadkarni also persuaded Mattel, the second largest toy maker in the world, to create a line of Barbies that promote science and adventure. The dolls wear hiking boots and carry research gear instead of their ordinary high heels and dresses. When Mattel finally decided to run with the idea — years after Nadkarni had proposed it — they invited her to serve as a consultant. And recently, Nadkarni has begun working with the fashion industry to produce and market nature-based images through eco-friendly lines of clothing and scarves. She hopes the project will reduce the long-standing pollution trends within the fashion industry and increase ecological awareness.
Reflecting on Nadkarni’s work, it becomes clear that a culturally multilingual approach is at play — a willingness to be nimble in vocabulary and tone as she develops an expansive platform.
In the context of prison education, promoting science education often meant championing the low cost and high level of feasibility associated with Informal Science Education (ISE), as we discussed in Moss in Prisons last month. And yet, Nadkarni slipped ideas of equity, partnership and well-being into her conversations with prison leadership too. Her research with NASA highlighted pre-existing gaps in science knowledge, and it examined rapid knowledge acquisition along race, gender and economic lines. With diplomacy and respect, it treated students inside prisons as equally important science learners. As highlighted last month, the Sustainability in Prisons Project (SPP) also promoted the scholarship of incarcerated individuals who participated in the program.
Like Nadkarni, SPP Co-Director Kelli Bush emphasizes the benefits of a diplomatic approach. Bush says that in recent years, diplomacy has allowed her to push a little further in her discourse with Washington State Department of Correction officials. Today, she talks openly with prison leadership about the prison industrial complex, and she has started to hear wardens, themselves, point to the broken nature of the system of mass incarceration. She says prison staff now identify structural racism as a force that underlies and feeds the prison system in their conversations, and she credits Nadkarni for establishing a foundation of trust that supports active dialogue.
Regardless of whether her partners are prisoners, prison staff, artists or industry, Nadkarni emphasizes the importance of respect, connection, and the interwoven strands of thought between scientists and non-scientists, much like relationships between species in the natural world.
Because she views connection as an essential ingredient in understanding, Nadkarni connects personally too. In public presentations about her work, she often tells a story about falling in love with her husband — an entomologist. When he proposed marriage, he promised to name an ant species after her. Today, there is a rainforest ant called “Procryptocerus Nalini.” Last year, Nadkarni told NPR that her husband describes it as “an elegant canopy ant… slim and nimble.”
“How could anyone resist?” Nalini asks her audiences.
In recent years, Nadkarni has developed a framework she calls tapestry thinking to emphasize the importance of each individual component of a system — whether that system is an ecosystem or a human community. She partners with the National Science Foundation, National Geographic, the Center for Public Engagement of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and beyond to promote scientific outreach. And ideally, that outreach goes far beyond traditional science audiences.
Nadkarni says she sees prison education programming as an essential thread in the tapestry, along with humanities partnerships, outreach to religious institutions, sports fans, industry leaders and others. She actively participates in, reviews, and writes critically about the Broader Impacts Criteria that have become a regular part of National Science Foundation grants. Nadkarni challenges her scientific peers to “increase the benefits of science for the human condition.” She enlists cadres of colleagues as “science ambassadors” along with non-traditional partners who can replicate and expand the reach of scientific ideas. She presses the academy to rigorously review proposals, with the aim of ensuring that the fruits of funded work reach the public. Her approach directly recognizes science’s inherently social elements, and she is currently at work on a jointly authored article that will articulate strategies for engagement on long-term impact planning. The goal is to extend science outreach to the widest possible community, with action plans for everyone from students to deans, faculty and funders.
Whether she is writing for scientific or popular readers, Nadkarni often centers two themes: (1) the importance of talking with non-traditional audiences to ensure that scientific ideas thrive, and (2) the interdependence of species, people and ideas. In an essay for Allison Hawthorne Deming’s The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity and the Natural World, Nadkarni commented on her own work over the course of more than twenty-five years, reflecting on scientific papers and research that reveal how, “little-known and structurally small plants that live their lives high above the forest floor are critical threads in the integrity of the complex tapestry of rainforests.” In the same chapter, she remarked that she, “…recogniz[ed] that the growing distance between scientists and non-scientists, and the widening gaps between humans and nature were two grave societal problems that most scientists did not seem to address.” These ideas highlight and strengthen the connections between members of communities as well as components of ecosystems.
What do stories about moss and prisons and widely divergent collaborations hold in common? And what is one to make of the eclectic entourage of associates — poets, and dancers and religious adherents, sports fanatics and NPR listeners, prisoners and prison guards and clothing designers and filmmakers… to name only a few of Nadkarni’s categories of followers? Nadkarni might be understood as a moderate, given her attention to safeguarding communication channels with as many social sectors as possible. Behind all of this outreach, though, can be found a modest form of zealotry, a radical inclusivity. Nadkarni’s focus seems sharply tuned to the question of how to expand — literally everyone’s — understanding of the answer to the question: “Who has a legitimate seat at science’s table?” She writes, “all voices, all approaches, and all types of people can contribute to keeping the great tapestry of nature intact,” and she invites us to re-envision the set of individuals we view as experts. The approach is radical because of its quiet assumptions.
In many ways, Nadkarni’s tapestry thinking, and her impulse to share stories broadly, resonate with Critical Race Theory and its focus on creating counter-narratives, even though she does not name CRT directly. Not surprisingly, in conversation she draws connections between the vital importance of inclusive practices in the sciences and the country’s recent reckoning last summer — a season that shone a harsh spotlight on some of the most damning examples of dehumanization by the criminal justice system. Similarly, in a 2016 interview, she pointed out that improvements in equity and inclusion are tantamount to improvements in science, saying:
How do you approach a problem? How do you think critically think about a problem? How do you think about solving a problem or coming up with a solution that other people haven’t? Diversity of ethnicity and socioeconomic status is just a manifestation of diversity of ways of knowing. That’s what U.S. science needs to stay competitive in the global arena.
Nadkarni’s message resonates with scholarship emerging from the University of Michigan, Stanford, Harvard, and MIT; these and other institutions have produced a robust body of research pointing out the profoundly important roles that diverse teams can, should and do play in scientific and creative outcomes, with a focus on gender and racial inclusion.
Across the board, Nadkarni’s work offers an ideal invitation to revisit the question of who “belongs” in science. With tapestry thinking, Nadkarni invites all the audiences she can possibly reach to participate in the growth and structure of scientific knowledge. Through initiatives such as the Sustainability in Prisons Project and INSPIRE, and through narratives that challenge our customary expectations about who does science and who it is for, Nadkarni builds on and expands the set of networks along which scientific information can flow.
Scientific stories often have a symbolic magic and literary beauty, despite their difficulty and complexity. Today, ecologists explain that underground micro fungi create a network of communication, protection and support between distant forests. Quantum physics reveals startling connections between particles in our complex universe, rivaling the best romantic poets. In addition to beauty though, narrative is, itself, an essential ingredient in moving the needle on socially constructed ideas. Both are both crucial if we want to create a world where all students and scientists, including scientists from underrepresented groups, are properly recognized.
With inclusive outreach strategies, cross-disciplinary collaborations, prison education initiatives and encouragement for imitators, Nadkarni’s intellectual wingspan may be wider than we are accustomed to. But by advocating for a stronger link between the intellectual merit and broader impacts of funded science research, blending scientific rigor with outreach, Nadkarni reinforces the threads of our shared tapestry. Doing so, she persistently nudges open science’s door, a little wider than it was before.
Michelle Frank is a Brooklyn-based writer pursuing an M.A. in Biography and Memoir at the CUNY Graduate Center. Her research focuses on science biography, with an emphasis on underrepresented voices in physics and ecology. Her poetry has earned writing grants from Sundog Poetry Center and the Ossabaw Island Writers’ Retreat. She is inspired by connections between social justice, science and the arts.