By Paul Gabrielsen, senior science writer, University Marketing and Communications

An after-school boxing club. A grocery store cooking class. A juvenile detention center. These likely aren’t the first venues that come to mind for scientists trying to bring their work to the public. For biology professor Nalini Nadkarni, however, the perfect venue is anywhere you can reach someone who hasn’t yet realized how much their life, interests, and experiences connect to science.

Biology professor Nalini Nadkarni speaks with an inmate.

PHOTO CREDIT: Jana Cunningham

Biology professor Nalini Nadkarni speaks with an inmate.

Nadkarni has years of experience bringing science into faith communities, sports and even into the toy aisle. Recently, with the help of NASA and the National Science Foundation, she is expanding her efforts, training scientists in communication and public engagement, and expanding the horizons of prisoners, refugees and other underserved groups.

Nadkarni’s scientific background is in forest ecology, specifically in canopy ecosystems. The problem of tropical deforestation hit uncomfortably close to home when she started hearing chainsaws from the treetops of her field study sites. Raising awareness for the plight of forests would require more than scientific publications, she realized. It would take direct public engagement.

After speaking with policymakers and speaking at museums, Nadkarni felt that she needed to make a direct connection with the public, reaching people who might not think to pick up a natural history magazine or visit a science museum. “What good am I doing by preaching to the choir?” she says.

Her first effort, “TreeTop Barbie,” dressed a doll in tree canopy field gear, and distributed her “canopy ambassador” with a booklet she wrote that described the science and wonder of canopy plants. She delivered sermons on ‘trees and spirituality’ and compiled a booklet of religiously significant trees for faith-based communities. Working with the University of Utah Athletics department, she helped develop a series of “Sports ‘n Science” videos to air at athletic events. Earlier this year, she brought the worlds of ecology and fashion together in an “Eco-fashion show.” Her most bold and enduring project, however, has been bringing science into prisons.

In 2003, Nadkarni launched the Sustainability in Prisons Project in Washington state prisons while a professor at The Evergreen State College. The prisoners both learned about science through lectures and practiced conservation through rearing endangered frogs and butterflies. The effect, Nadkarni hopes, is to change the prisoners’ conceptions about their relationship to science, to society and to themselves. Many inmates saw themselves as “bad at science” because of past experiences, Nadkarni says, but prisoners in her programs come away with a new experience: “That was interesting,” she says, summarizing prisoners’ comments. “I understood that. I asked a question and researcher said ‘That’s a good question.’ Maybe I can become a science learner, too.”

Nadkarni moved to the University of Utah in 2011, and established INSPIRE program (Initiative to bring Science Programs to the incarcerated) at the Utah State Prison. At the Salt Lake County Jail, Nadkarni has partnered with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources to establish a refuge pond for the least chub fish, found only in Utah. Currently, female inmates at the prison are raising 24,000 sagebrush seedlings to be planted in late October or early November. The sagebrush will enhance habitat for the sage grouse, the iconic bird of the Intermountain West. Recently, Nadkarni has brought the INSPIRE program into juvenile facilities. “They’re really interested and receptive,” Nadkarni says. “And the scientists who have spoken there say ‘this is great – I want to do this again.’”

Nadkarni feels that her work is part of a growing trend among scientists who recognize the importance of public engagement. “I sense that it’s beginning to align with a national understanding that scientists can no longer just stay in their labs and field sites,” she says. “Environmental, social and human problems are growing to the extent that scientists have to do something.”

In January 2016, with a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation, Nadkarni and collaborators at Stanford University and the Pacific Science Center started the STEM Ambassador Program in which scientists identify populations and venues impacted by their science—but who might not realize it or feel inclined towards science.

Jeremy Morris, a graduate student in biology, studies biomechanics with biology professor David Carrier and is a member of the first STEM Ambassador cohort of 20 researchers. Morris’ work concerns the evolution of the human fist, so he found an after-school boxing club and taught the members what he’d learned about the hand and fist.

“Those kids will be seeing a real scientist who’s taking interest in them and saying ‘you’re important, and I’m choosing to spend time with you. The work I do in the lab has something to do with what’s important to you,’” Nadkarni says.

STEM Ambassador Julia McGonigle brought the science of microbial fermentation to a cooking class at Harmon's grocery store in Salt Lake City.

PHOTO CREDIT: Caitlin Weber

STEM Ambassador Julia McGonigle brought the science of microbial fermentation to a cooking class at Harmon’s grocery store in Salt Lake City.

Another STEM Ambassador, Julia McGonigle, a graduate student of microbial ecologist professor William Brazelton, presented a cooking class on the microbiology of fermentation at Harmon’s grocery store in Salt Lake City. “It wasn’t that we were bringing them to the university to say, ‘listen about the microbes that create sauerkraut.’ Rather, we placed her in the cooking class so people interested in cooking could get this idea that microbes are really important because they change cabbage into sauerkraut and the more the learn about that the better sauerkraut they’ll make,” Nadkarni says. Her team will be recruiting the second cohort of 30 STEM Ambassadors in early 2017.

Other scientific institutions are following Nadkarni’s lead. Learning of her work, the NASA Astrobiology program contacted Nadkarni to bring the field of astrobiology—the study of life in the universe—and space imagery into her prison programs. She had previously shown that violent infractions decreased 26 percent among prisoners who viewed nature imagery. Surprisingly, the prisoners preferred images of wide-open deserts to trees or forests. The forests made them feel confined, they said. They’d rather feel the freedom of open spaces. NASA will be supplying Hubble Space Telescope imagery from the ultimate wide-open space.

The National Science Foundation also shares Nadkarni’s view of outreach. Many previous efforts to increase diversity in science provided scholarships and other funding opportunities specifically for underrepresented populations. A new funding opportunity, called NSF INCLUDES, aimed to explore innovative ways to broaden diversity beyond the previously tried methods.

“I began thinking of that idea of the self-identity switch we observed in prisoners exposed to our science lectures,” Nadkarni says. “Before someone can enter this tapestry of cool things you can do in science, and partake of the many opportunities for being trained in science, you first have to say, ‘I see myself as a thread that could be knit into this tapestry of science.’”

In September, Nadkarni was awarded an INCLUDES grant, and in the next two years will work with three populations: post-release adult inmates, post-release juvenile inmates and refugee youth. She and her collaborators in the arts, the humanities, and in the community will help those groups explore their identity and relationship to science through improvisational drama, through storytelling, and through participating in ecosystem restoration projects.

Improving diversity is improving science, Nadkarni says. “How do you approach a problem? How do you 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 reflects on academia’s attitude toward science communication in recent decades, and finds encouragement in new graduate students’ enthusiasm for outreach, increasingly supported by institutions such as NSF, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the University of Utah.

“It’s this evolving fabric in that we in academia are beginning to understand the impacts of interweaving science with society and society with science.”