Last week, I sat down (virtually) with Dr. Meg Lowman, also known as Canopy Meg, who is settling into her new home in San Francisco. Meg recently moved from Raleigh to California to assume a new role, Chief of Science and Sustainability, at the California Academy of Sciences. Even though I was sitting all the way across the country from her, I was transplanted into Meg’s living room with its nature-themed tapestries adorning the walls. Shortly after we connected, Meg turned the camera to her window where I could see her picturesque view of Alcatraz and the somehow-different California afternoon light reflecting off windows of neighboring buildings. Meg enthusiastically described her new city, telling me about the Farmers Market where on Saturday mornings she overhears conversations lilting from vegetables to climate change. The camera swings back to her almost permanently smiling face as we delve into middle school memories. Unapologetically, Meg describes herself with those stereotypical words that we hate to hear — “geek” and “nerd” — but there’s more to her story than her self-imposed labels. She describes her wonderfully supportive parents, how her childhood tree forts inspired her to do research in the tree canopy, and how her sons continue to inspire her today.
Lea: We’re thinking back to middle school. Can you think back to what it was like as a middle school student? Where were you?
Meg: I was in Elmira, New York. My family came from Lowman, New York, which was a little town outside of Elmira. And then my grandfather moved into Elmira along with my dad. I went to a Junior High School. It was terrible!
What did your parents want you to become? What did they do?
They were so kind and tolerant. They knew nothing about science, and they still don’t. They have my pile of publications with dust on it in the living room. They were proud of me. My mom taught remedial reading in elementary school and my dad was a high school history teacher. They were just very kind. They would always stop the car because I always wanted to pick flowers and press them in the phone book. I think they kind of felt they needed to do something for me — I was really shy. I was so shy I could hardly even talk to my teachers in school, so they were happy that I liked these wildflowers. The picture I shared with you [above] is of me winning the State Science Fair. My dad drove me to Cortland in the morning, and we ran out of gas; it was just way beyond our comfort zone to go just those 60 miles — we hardly went anywhere. And there I was: 499 guys with their volcano experiments and me with this wildflower collection. I don’t know how I got second prize — maybe because I was the only girl there. I was so shy I didn’t even say “thank you” to the judges! I couldn’t even open my mouth. [laughs] But it was, at least, a little tiny pat on the back. In some ways it gave me that teensy weensy bit of courage at a vulnerable stage.
“And there I was: 499 guys with their volcano experiments and me with this wildflower collection.”
What changed? You’re not shy now!
Practice. Practice. Practice. I used to throw up in graduate school before I’d have to give a talk, that’s how shy I was. When I went to the University of Sydney to do my PhD, I taught science to blue collar workers. I went out and taught them how they could get their GED or whatever courses they needed in order to work towards graduation. I taught night school over and over until I finally felt like I could do this in front of somebody that I knew. They were my wonderful students — we had a ball. I took them down to the waterfront and we looked at barnacles. I took them to the park and none of them had ever been in a park. It was actually kind of cool.
I think a really critical thing for me when I was younger was working at a summer camp, teaching kids about nature. For six weeks out of the year, I worked with other staff members and high school students that also liked birds and flowers. I just lived for July and August. It was a saving grace for me to go to this camp and spend time with other kids like me. There were a lot of kids there from Washington, DC — they had the advantage of going to the Smithsonian all year and being surrounded by kids like themselves. I was literally the only one in my town like myself. I just absolutely adored and admired all of these “sophisticated” kids from more prestigious towns and things like that. Feeling that way helps me a lot and gives me so much empathy for students. That’s why I work with girls from India and students from Ethiopia; I really feel so much empathy for students when they’re not surrounded by the ability to do these things. You really appreciate every little teeny crumb that someone throws you. But, I did love nature, so I stuck with it.
I was the second salutatorian of our high school so I had to give a speech — that really freaked me out. I practiced in the shower for months and months and months. Literally. I wrote the speech in February. And then we had the Big Flood of 1972 in upstate New York — the whole Susquehanna River flooded. Our high school got turned into a Red Cross safety zone because the whole town was flooded. They cancelled graduation and I never had to give my speech! To this day, my girlfriends tease me: “When are you ever going to give that speech?” Maybe at our 50th reunion. The only relief I had was that I never had to give that speech because you know I would have thrown up! [laughs] People look at me and think, “Oh, she’s not shy,” but inside of me I still am. But I know I need to say things that are important to me, especially on environmental issues right now.
“It was a saving grace for me to go to this camp and spend time with other kids like me.”
What was your biggest worry in middle school?
My biggest worry was dropping my books in front of the boys and then they would laugh at me. [laughs] Those were the kinds of things that went on! I sang in the church choir so I always was worried that I’d be asked to sing a solo and I’d be scared. I worried about passing my exams like every other kid that studied hard — which, of course, wasn’t too many in my school. I worried about getting to that summer camp in July. Really and truly, I had this very straightforward life. We didn’t even do sports in those days. That probably would have empowered me if we had those — but girls’ sports wasn’t something that was done. So it is kind of amazing how things have changed! I think it has changed for the better.
What were your favorite subjects while you were in school?
My favorite subjects, I think, were more influenced by the teachers. I remember loving my 7th grade English teacher because she taught us how to diagram sentences, and I thought that was really cool and artistic. My science teachers were not strong. Oh my gosh, my chemistry teacher smelled like a cigarette — it used to make me not even want to go in the room! It is so funny, all of those little tiny vignettes that you remember. All the girls had a crush on our choir teacher, but I didn’t. That was sort of the fashionable thing to do — have a crush on one of your teachers! [laughs] I just really liked English. I, unfortunately, did not have a strong biology background — I just had nature. So I had my outdoor life in biology, but nothing related to school.
Were you in any clubs, have any hobbies, or involved in any extracurricular activities?
I collected my wildflowers. I had this huge birds’ egg collection that I found in my grandmother’s attic. I used to spend hours identifying these birds eggs. It was very cool. I would go over to Cornell University — once in a while my mother would drive me there (it was about 30 miles away) — but I was too shy. I would literally stand in the hallway of the Laboratory of Ornithology and watch professors and students go by. I never said anything to anybody, but I just felt like breathing the air was so exciting! That’s as close as I got to an academic life when I was younger! I had this kind of passion outside of school for nature.
As I mentioned I was pretty active in my church; we had a youth group, and I was in choir. I worked part-time in the library shelving books and that helped me get a little bit of money. With that, I could get down to my camp job in the summer and buy bird books — I was also able to buy a nice camera when I was in 9th grade. It was really cool, a 35mm camera, that I used to take nature pictures. There weren’t too many clubs at my school — it was either intramural sports or nothing. I don’t even think there was a home economics club — that would have been about all there was for the girls, unfortunately. It’s so amazing how the world has changed!
“I never said anything to anybody, but I just felt like breathing the air was so exciting!”
Did you have any siblings growing up?
I had two younger brothers. The one who was a year younger than me was actually very ill when he was little so I had to spend quite a bit of time living with my aunt. He was near death so my parents had to really focus on him. Then they had another child who was seven years younger than me, so I babysat for him quite a bit. My brother who was closest in age to me, when he got well, was very musical. I did a lot of music too — I even played the oboe, the piano and the clarinet, and he played string instruments. I guess we had that shared interest in music, so that was a lot of fun. He kept it up better than I did. Our school would give us an instrument if we played in the band, but I never owned the instrument, so when I graduated from high school I unfortunately didn’t have the clarinet or oboe to play anymore — that was the end of my musical career, but it had been fun.
Did your parents make you practice? Or did you practice on your own?
They did — my mom made us practice the piano. I was really happy that we took piano; but again, because I was so shy, I used to try hard not to be picked for the recital because I didn’t want to play in front of anybody! I think it’s just so wonderful to understand how musical notes work on a page. So I practiced my instruments after school, I guess, when I would think about it. Then I would rush out and go bird watching or something! But all by myself because nobody else liked to do it!
What was your favorite thing to wear to school?
So, you know what, we had to wear dresses and they had to be down to our knee. I don’t think I was a fashion statement. [laughs] Some of the girls rolled their dresses up when they got away from their mom’s eyes or when they got off the school bus. I got a lot of hand-me-downs from my cousin so my clothes had little to do with fashion and were more about getting her rejects — she was two years older than me! I have a little bit of a blank on the old fashion thing, but anyway our school colors were blue and white so I guess I must have had a blue sweatshirt somewhere along the way. I was such a geek — I was much more interested in buying a bird book than a favorite sweater or something. Pretty classic, you know, I must have been so out to lunch.
Why, or when, did you decide to become a scientist?
I think when I was about age 3, but I never really knew that girls could be scientists, in all fairness. I thought I would be a park ranger because that’s the only job I ever saw around my neighborhood where somebody was working outdoors. That’s what I wanted to do — just be outdoors when I grew up. That’s what I thought might be a possible career. Then, when I got to college, I still never had a woman science teacher, which was kind of amazing, but at least I had an aspiration at that point in time.
How much of your successful discoveries were due to chance?[immediately] All! [laughs] I tell students, “So much is fate” — for me, especially, when I went off to grad school. I actually started at Duke and my advisor eloped with the only other female student. I was left advisor-less and on my own. I ended up getting this crazy scholarship to go to the University of Sydney. I figured that even if I flunked, at least I had this chance to go overseas, which I’d never done. So when I got there — guess what — I was the only female student in biological sciences.
I told my advisor, “I want to study leaves in the rainforest.”
So my advisor said to me,“Well, you’re in the rainforest, but nobody at the University of Sydney has ever studied the rainforest.”
I couldn’t believe they even accepted me! I didn’t even know what a rainforest looked like, and nobody else was studying them, so they said, “Just drive north for a thousand miles and you’ll find them!”
My advisor also said, “You’re going to have to learn to climb the trees because that’s where all the leaves are.”
I thought, “No! Surely I can use my binoculars! Surely I can train a monkey!”
He said, “I think you really have to climb these trees.”
So that was fate because I learned from a caving club how to climb these trees and BINGO! I got up in the trees and there were millions of insects and hundreds of birds and hundreds of animals and I discovered of all this amazing biodiversity that I never even would have run across if I had my own way of just trying to use my binoculars to look at the leaves. So that was real fate — it led me to so many studies of leaf chemistry, studies of biodiversity, studies of photosynthesis, studies of insects eating plants, just on and on and on… It was just like a whole lifetime of complexity and that was really just by chance. I did not sit down and think, “You know I think everything must be at the top.” In fact, nobody had, that’s the amazing thing; we had already been to the moon and back and nobody had been to the top of a tree. It’s kind of incredible to think about exploration in that sense.
“…[W]e had already been to the moon and back and nobody had been to the top of a tree. It’s kind of incredible to think about exploration in that sense.”
Who were your role models?
My heroes! One was Rachel Carson because I just couldn’t believe that this lady had saved all the songbirds. I love songbirds. She was so brave because all the chemical companies made fun of her and she was a bigger geek than I was, I think. And I loved Harriet Tubman, the African American woman who led the slaves in the Underground Railroad. The reason I thought she was the coolest thing was that in the dark she felt the moss and navigated those people to safety. I thought that was the most amazing piece of natural history I’d ever heard of. I used to go out at night and feel on the tree to see if I could do that — but man, I could never do that! It was in my own backyard and so for her to do that for hundreds of miles, I just really thought she was a hero.
“…[Rachel Carson] was a bigger geek than I was, I think.”
How much did you play outside? Where did you play outside?
A lot. Almost all the time. I was in a small town without too many other things to do. There wasn’t Internet, of course, and we only had two TV channels in black and white, so it wasn’t compelling to watch television. My one friend, Betsy Hilfiger, made these tree forts with me and we spent a lot of time in our little secret world. There was a vacant lot between our houses so that was where we went. We called it “the swamp,” and we thought we would find treasure there; mostly, we found baby birds that had fallen out of their nests, which is kind of a good little rescue thing. Betsy became a nurse, which is illustrative of her passion, and I became a scientist. In the summer of middle school, I had that summer camp job and so was totally outside. The dorms were screened. It was very simplistic — no electricity — and that was a great opportunity to experience nature with other kids that loved nature, too.
Did you ever feel like you were the only kid like yourself?
I sure did, definitely in my hometown. But when I got to this camp, which really wasn’t until the summer of 7th grade, I felt amazed — I couldn’t believe it — that was a very exciting breakthrough in my life. That camp still exists, actually; it’s a wonderful camp. My kids went there and they ended up working there. It was one of the first nature camps in all of America and it still is one of the best ones. They don’t water it down with sports or computer games. It’s called Burgundy Center for Wildlife Studies in West Virginia. One of the campers that I taught is now the director!
Did you collect anything?
I collected everything! I had shells, stones… I collected wildflowers and put them in telephone books. When I tell kids that now, they always look at their iPhone and go, “How did you put wildflowers in here?” You have to explain to them that we used to have these paper telephone books! I collected really weird things… I collected twigs because I loved to look at all the different buds in the winter. I labeled them and tied a string on them and put them in a shoebox. Under my bed I had all these treasure things and then in the winter, mice would move in and my mother would throw a fit because they would make all this noise chewing through all of my bird nests and twigs. I thought it was kind of cool, but she did not like it.
Did you ever have a professional crisis or think of throwing in the academic towel?
I did! I had so many I wrote a book about it — Life in the Treetops: Adventures of a Woman in Field Biology — I call it my misadventures. There were so many hurdles! Most of my hurdles were about being a woman in science in a time before it was allowed. Even my graduate school experience made me think that maybe I wasn’t supposed to be there when I started at Duke. Then at Sydney, the same thing. I ended up getting married in the outback of Australia. My in-laws wouldn’t let me practice science; that was forbidden. Women did not do that, they said; women cooked, women sewed, women had babies. They were the rulers of the roost in a rural community so I stopped doing science. When my sense finally came back to me, I returned to the US with my sons. I was a single mom and restarted my science. In my time women either got married and had kids or didn’t ever get married and they devoted their life to a career and there wasn’t so much juggling; I was one of the early people who did both.
Do you feel compelled now to encourage women who were in your situation to pursue careers in science?
Totally. I say yes to every single talk to 3rd grade or 7th grade or college students… next weekend I’m giving a commencement address, and I will definitely talk about that! I think it’s so important and nobody talked to me about that, which reminds me that maybe it’s worth saying. There’s still a difference in the fact that women have children and men can’t, let’s face it; there’s this different interruption of your career. We need to support one another and we need to support men as well because hopefully they can take part of the responsibility and that’s a good thing. If no scientists have children, what will happen?
Is there a memento that you keep with you at work from your childhood? What is its significance?
No, the mementos I keep are from my kids. I have a beautiful drawing my son Eddie made for me on Mother’s Day and it says, “I love my mommy, she buys me Legos and she shows me nature.” It’s so cute. I have pictures that I treasure of the boys climbing with me when they were really little. Obviously they had kind of a weird childhood having to come to work with their mom, and so we had a special bond. Stuff from them are really my best treasures. I do have a little book that I wrote when I was little; my mom saved it and gave it to me. I do have something – I’ll show you right here! [excitedly gets up and grabs something. She proudly holds up a yellowing photo book and an exploding cattail falls out of it, covering her desk and computer with fuzz. Small handwritten note cards alongside pressed flowers preserved on pieces of telephone book are on every page of this overfilled book. She flips through the pages so that I can see the careful consideration she gave to each of these treasures she collected along the side of the road in New York.] My Indian Pipe! [she holds up another page] I have about three of these little tiny books with my notes. I have taken them all around the world with me, just because they’re always in my bookshelf. They’ve always come with me.
Did you ever think you would become a scientist? What did you think that scientists did all day?
No, I did not think that I would ever become a scientist, really and truly. One of my hiccups was that I fell out of a tree. I was debating whether or not I should marry this Australian sheep farmer or take this pretty prestigious job in Puerto Rico. I fell out of a tree and I thought, “I can never be a scientist. I’m hopeless. I think I should get married and not take that job.” So that’s what I did. My advisor was bragging to me that he had been away for 25 out of 28 Christmases so I kind of thought that scientists had to be so married to the job, that I’d never be good enough for that. It wasn’t until I started doing my own field work that I could understand and appreciate the academic role; where you teach a little, go out into the field a little, write a little. You sort of have a lot of control over the hours of your day, which is pretty darn good, when we think about it. As scientists we get to exercise our curiosity, and that’s something that is a privilege and a gift which is something special. It’s a real opportunity to be a mom and a scientist; you get to keep your sense of wonder by having children.
“As scientists we get to exercise our curiosity, and that’s something that is a privilege and a gift which is something special.”
Do you feel like your childhood is over?
No, not at all. I give my kids so much credit. I feel so honored to have been their mom! They have inspired me so much. Students continue to inspire me.
What do you think your middle school self would be most surprised about, considering your life?
That I really did this! I actually discovered things and wrote some books and achieved something in the world outside of Elmira, New York. And I’m still really curious and excited about doing more.
“…I’m still really curious and excited about doing more.”
If you could give your middle school self some advice, what would it be?
Have a little more courage and conviction in middle school. It probably would be, “Don’t be so shy.” I wish I would have had more of a chance to be more worldly at a younger age. I’m making up for it now, but I was just a very naive small town kid. I had to play catch-up a lot with people who were from a much more sophisticated past. That was something that astounded me a lot, even when I got to college.
How often did someone tell you that you were wrong? Were there any particularly memorable moments?
I think mostly it was the gender thing. People said, “You can’t do this, you’re a woman.” “You shouldn’t be doing this.” I think culturally, in Australia at least, that was a huge issue. It took a long time for me to think maybe I could, because when you don’t have a support system around you, you start to believe it. That’s why I think there are so many issues with women in other cultures because there’s no one to fall back on. It’s really tough to try to see the light on your own. We have to keep pushing and nudging so that the next generation sees women in a totally different light, which would be my dream for your daughter. I hope that would be the case for her.
Did you ever get into trouble at school?
No, I was too scared. I got into trouble one time in kindergarten. I had a perfect workbook until the last page and my best friend Mimi took her black crayon and circled the wrong answer. I went up to the teacher’s desk and she said, “Oh, Meg, how could you do this?” I just had little tears, I couldn’t even tell on my friend Mimi. So I didn’t get a gold star. She was just disappointed in me… that’s how shy I was!
What’s a discovery that you have made that you think your middle school self would find interesting?
Finding so much biodiversity in the canopy! Finding that hotspot where now we know that 50% of terrestrial biodiversity probably lives in the treetops. Just the fact that nobody ever knew that until 1979 is kind of extraordinary to me. There were a handful of people working on that, but no more than two or three. I’m not Louis Pasteur, but it was really neat to be one of the pioneers that made that discovery.
If you could have a superpower, what would it be?
Probably a tail so I could climb trees! On the serious side, if I had a wish and a magic wand, it would be to give women in developing countries opportunities to do things that they dream about doing; that’s my passion right now.
Dr. Meg Lowman, better known as Canopy Meg, is the Chief of Biodiversity Science and Sustainability for the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, California. She is also the Director for the Institute for Biodiversity Science and Sustainability. In her free time she loves to cook for people that she loves, read and walk on the beach (because it’s not the forest). Follow her on Twitter @canopymeg.