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A Case Study of a Mom-Scientist: Canopy Meg

The decision to mesh motherhood with a nascent career as an environmental biologist wasn’t one that Margaret Dalzwell Lowman (AKA Canopy Meg) had the luxury of choosing. Rather, it was a lifestyle born out of necessity.

After completing her doctorate at the University of Sydney in 1983, Lowman (pictured left) launched her career as a visiting professor in the Department of Biology and Environmental Sciences at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts--the same college she attended as an undergraduate. She was recently divorced and had two active young sons, ages 3 and 5.

Her working conditions were not ideal, especially for a single parent. Her starting pay was so low that she qualified for food stamps and free lunches for her children from public entitlement programs. "I had no skills in negotiating and no idea what my particular credentials were worth. I was just so happy to have a roof over my head and an opportunity to pursue science that I signed on the dotted line," she says. Her situation wasn't helped by the fact that she was entering a male-dominated field that allowed little wiggle-room for women with kids.

But she was determined to make it work. "When I became a single mom, I looked at the world a little differently," she says. "Suddenly I had to be successful because my children were depending on me." Sixteen years later, Lowman has scaled new heights, literally and figuratively: She found a niche for herself studying the world’s forest canopies, which are home to about 40 percent of all biological species. She has pioneered techniques for canopy access, including ropes, walkways, hot-air balloons, and construction cranes. She also found time to write two critically acclaimed books, Life in the Treetops and It’s a Jungle Up There: More Tales from the Treetops , which document the ecology of the canopy, particularly its plant-insect relationships. The most recent book was co-authored with her two sons, James and Eddie.

More than a necessity, juggling career and family soon became, for Lowman and her family, a source of enrichment that her books have extended to readers, particularly women scientists all around the world and their children.

Courtesy: Margaret D. Lowman

Parenting amidst the treetops

Most working mothers must walk the shaky tightrope between career and family, often feeling that they are short-changing one or the other, or, at times, both. "The juggling of family and career is a wonderful blessing if you can possibly get through the initial phases of trying to partition the two," she says. Lowman managed it by morphing into a hyphenated "mom-scientist." Instead of keeping the two worlds separate, she merged them, combining her passion for her work and her love for her family.

Her early productivity hinged, in part, on being focused and well organized. "It was always a source of much amusement to my male counterparts that I started work as soon as I arrived and was forced to make good use of my time because I wanted to be energetic and active with my children when I got home," she says. "Also, I had done a lot of preliminary research prior to getting my doctorate, so when I was ready for my field work, I was able to hit the ground running."

It also helped that her mother lived nearby and was able to pitch in with childcare when needed. But Lowman made a rule that she never revealed to her male colleagues: She would never stay away from her children for more than 2 weeks at a time. "I wanted to make sure that when grandma came to baby-sit, she didn’t run out of energy, and I always wanted to be able to keep close track of what my kids were up to."

But Lowman's most important innovation was this: she turned longer field expeditions into family trips, taking her two sons to remote regions of four continents. "We have shared adventures in the Amazon, dangling from trees together, walking on canopy bridges, learning medicinal plants from a shaman, eating insects, spotting scarlet macaws, and just getting muddy," she writes in It’s a Jungle Up There. "Experiencing the world through three pairs of eyes has enriched my life far beyond relying on my own view alone."

Anyone with children in the public schools knows that arrangements like these are not easily negotiated. Teachers and school administrators frown upon children missing classes. Lowman solved these problems by a variety of means. "I befriended a lot of the science teachers in both elementary and middle school. I ended up offering my services in exchange for the boys coming out. I would give a lot of volunteer lectures."

The boys took their homework and extra assignments with them on trips, along with notebooks to dutifully record the details of their adventures. "They would return with stories of army ants or invasive species in the biosphere," says Lowman. "If nothing else, it livened up the classes and I would come in with a lecture and slide show about ecosystems to give the teacher a break."

Lowman’s sons, Eddie and James, joined their mom’s expedition in Belize in 1994. (Credit: Christopher Knight)

Reaching out to children, and further

Lowman’s passion for her work has enhanced her sons’ education and appreciation for the natural wonders of the world, but it has also reached tens of millions of others. As chief scientist for the Jason Project for Education (now called the Jason Expedition), she has shared her canopy research in Belize with more than 9 million middle-school students and teachers in Peru and Panama. The project utilized distance-learning satellite technology to deliver live broadcasts from remote locations into classrooms and museums. Students who completed leaf measurements as part of the project become members of Lowman’s Leaf Lovers Club.

Her work has also inspired a Reading Rainbow video produced by public television; a children’s book called, The Most Beautiful Roof in the World (by Kathryn Lasky); and a National Geographic video called Heroes of the High Frontier .

Closer to home, you may find Lowman leading a nature hike for kids or families; the day after Christmas last year, this charismatic educator attracted some 300 participants on one such expedition. She also created a student-outreach program at New College of Florida that enticed 51 undergraduates to mentor middle-school science students. The program received an award from the county for its contributions to environmental education. In addition, she writes a column for the local newspaper in her hometown, called “Nature’s Secrets.”

Finally, Lowman takes great pride in the Meg Lowman Treetops Summer Camp in her home town of Elmira, in upstate New York. "I only act as a fund-raiser and cheerleader," she says. "Others run the show." The camp employs Lowman’s philosophy of "learning by doing," simultaneously exposing disadvantaged middle-school boys and girls to the forest ecology as they learn about the scientific method.

She expresses the hope that parent-scientists, male and female, can find novel ways to involve children--and not just their own children--in their work. "This is essential to our future well-being," she says. "My sons and I joke that my generation has found and measured a lot of the environmental problems and degradation, and we hope that their generation will be the ones to come up with solutions," she says.

A role model for women

Sixteen years have passed since Lowman wrestled her way into a male-dominated field as a single mom, but not much has changed in that time. Young women still struggle to combine careers in science with family obligations. A small study, whose results were published in the August 2006 issue of Educational Research and Evaluation, examined why high-school-aged women are less likely to aspire to careers in male-dominated fields like math and science and why they are more likely to drop out when they do. "Our study found that, despite more societal efforts to expand occupational options for women, concerns that young women have about balancing a family and career can deter them from fulfilling their ambitions," says social psychologist and lead author Pam Frome of RTI International in Durham, North Carolina. The study calls for role models who can prove that male-dominated careers are compatible with family goals.

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In her current role as a full-time professor of biology and environmental studies at New College of Florida in Sarasota, Lowman spends much of her time being such a role model, especially for women. "I think women naturally gravitate toward role models," she says. As she builds a new department of environmental studies at the college, she mentors young scientists--especially women--and corresponds with a cadre of young women she has met in her travels to developing countries over the years.

In her writings, Lowman openly shares stories of her struggles and successes as a mom-scientist. "A part of me wants to demystify science to engage more women and minorities whom we have inadvertently disenfranchised," she says. "When I first published a book that incorporated personal stories with science, some of my colleagues looked askance; now, public outreach is an important component of most National Science Foundation grants."

Lowman admits she is now battling what she calls a "mid-career leadership crisis," trying to keep her boots muddy at the same time as she lends her scientific and leadership skills to various professional associations and the academic community. She is a fellow and Board Member of the Explorers Club, an international multidisciplinary professional society dedicated to the advancement of field research. This year, she will be one of the honorees receiving its prestigious Lowell Thomas Award. She is also a vice-president of the Ecological Society of America, another organization where she trumpets her science education agenda. And she is part of the senior management team of the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) for the National Science Foundation.

Family Life

Lowman still nurtures and cherishes her family. She has been remarried, for 8 years, to an attorney who she met on one of the trips she led to the Amazon. She describes him as someone "who wishes he could traipse along with her in the forest all day." As for her sons, mission accomplished: James and Eddie, now 19 and 21 respectively, are both aspiring scientists at Princeton University. "I tease them about really wanting them to be doctors or lawyers because they are so passionate about wanting to fix the planet," she says.

During a recent visit back home in Sarasota, Eddie reflected on his "unusual upbringing" for which he says he is very grateful. "My brother and I always managed to make the most of things even when we were the only children in a room full of adult scientists," he says. Many times, Lowman would encourage other families with children to join them, which made those jaunts especially memorable and fun for the kids.

Looking back, Eddie views his field trips as great travel opportunities. "I got to see some pretty neat places all over the world. It was humbling to see the way other people live in remote regions of the Amazon," he says. "I don’t really feel like I missed out on too much by spending time away from school and friends. It brought my brother and I closer to each other, although we used to fight a lot," he adds with a laugh.

"I will always have a great deal of respect for what my mom has done with her life," says Eddie. "Her passion for conservation biology has instilled not only a sense of wonder, but a sense of stewardship and responsibility for the natural world. Now I am eager to pursue science and important environmental issues, especially climate change."

Looking back, Lowman has no doubts that her juggling act was worthwhile. "As I look back at my busy life, I would not have been happy giving up either—career or family," she says.

Irene S. Levine is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in many of America's leading newspapers and magazines. Trained as a psychologist, she works part-time as a research scientist at the Nathan Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research in Orangeburg, New York, and she holds a faculty appointment as a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. She resides in Chappaqua, New York.

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