Nalini Nadkarni researches in rainforest ecology and takes her studies to American prisons.

Captivates prisoners with research


Nalini Nadkarni is a biologist who has a passion for reaching out with her research to people who are not generally familiar with science. She and her research team involve members of religious communities, prisoners, baseball players and Barbie-doll owners.

Nalini Nadkarni is deeply involved in matters relating to the survival of the Earth. But she realised at an early stage that it is not possible to influence people into changing their lifestyles only by giving them scientific facts. She had to do something else.

“My philosophy is to work out how people can become interested in science and then bring research to them. I want to take it to places where people work, live, and spend their leisure time.”

Involves prisoners

She has a particular commitment to those who, for various reasons, can’t get to museums, such as people who are in prison. She has interested prisoners in all sorts of projects, from growing moss to breeding endangered frogs.

Nalini Nadkarni is professor of biology at the University of Utah in the USA, and her research is about rainforest ecology. Her own research is always the starting point for her external activities.

She had the idea of cultivating moss because rainforests in the north-west parts of USA are being ravaged from valuable moss, which is sold to flower shops. She wondered if it might be possible to grow moss and sell it instead.

“I thought that people in prison would be able to help because they have the time and space, and because they can’t be in the great outdoors they would perhaps enjoy growing something.”

She contacted an open jail in Washington State – the Cedar Creek Correction Center in Littlerock. The prison warden said, “that can’t do any harm,” and so the project started. It turned out that cultivating moss worked really well.

“Everyone was satisfied: the inmates had something to do, I got an answer to my research question and the prison warden noticed that the men functioned better socially and started to cooperate.”

Do something good

The project was so successful that the prison warden wondered if they could do something else. This resulted in the research group giving science lessons in the prison, which inspired the men to start composting, recycling waste and making an organic garden.

It then developed further to collaboration with other researchers, and inmates started breeding endangered species such as frogs, butterflies and plants. The program has now expanded to around twenty prisons.

“Inmates are given the opportunity to contribute to something that is bigger than themselves. Doing something that is good, is hopeful and that improves the world. It also gives them knowledge and skills which are useful when they come out and seek work. They see that there are other ways to live.”

Many inmates eventually became such experts that they were able to teach the researchers a thing or two. Now all types of prisons are involved, both for women and men. The researchers are even working at Supermax-jails, where violent prisoners are isolated from others most hours of the day.

The researchers then had to find new ways of working, because the prisoners were not allowed to bring material into their cells.

“The men are given nature films instead that they can watch during their time outside the cell. This reduces stress and makes them less violent.”

Turned to religious people

Nalini Nadkarni also contacts religious communities, feeling that many religious people do not believe in science. She began to study religious scripts from the Bible, the Koran and the Talmud to find out how the texts related to trees – and found many references.

She then offered religious communities a guest sermon on the relationship between trees and religion, on the basis of their own scriptures. It was very much appreciated and she has preached in churches, synagogues and temples, always clear in her respect for people’s faiths.

“I am trying to bridge the gap between research and religion, where there are often large tensions. Many people are genuinely interested in understanding their own religion from a researcher’s perspective.”

Nalini Nadkarni moves in many arenas. She has even managed to get baseball players to advertise for tree research, since their bats are made of wood. On top of this, she has had a collection of Barbie clothes sewn up in the form of a tree researcher’s field outfit.

Without limits!

She is now in the process of embarking on yet another project area: hospitals. She wants to introduce nature in terms of material, decoration and textiles.

“When you start this sort of thing you realise that there are hardly any limits to how far a researcher can go to reach out to the public.

It has not been very easy to get other researchers to involve the general public in their scientific work, though. Many of them are interested, but it doesn’t fit into the academic structure.” That is why Nalini Nadkarni is now recruiting and training other researchers to be ambassadors, for a more outward-oriented approach.

“Researchers are rewarded for writing scientific articles and speaking at conferences – not going out to churches and prisons. This attitude is changing, especially among younger researchers, but it is a slow process.”

Text: Helena Östlund
Photo: Benj Drummond / Jon Huey