To See Both the Forest and the Trees

I’m not easily impressed, but sometimes, like last Friday, I was. Granted, Mari Mette Tollefsrud, my colleague at the Norwegian Forest and Landscape Institute, was lead author in last week’s Science. That’s pretty sweet.

Their findings, according to the abstract “…imply that conifer trees survived in ice-free refugia of Scandinavia during the last glaciation, challenging current views on survival and spread of trees as a response to climate changes.” I mean, you can safely take the weekend off when a project like has been safely landed.

Mari Mette didn’t do it all by herself, of course. For over three years, she co-operated with 23 other scientists from 16 research institutions in 11 countries. And what did they do? They studied DNA and pollen grains from lake sediments in Andøya and Meråker in Western Norway. They dated the sediments, analyzed the DNA found in the soil samples, and discovered that trees like spruce and pine actually survived the ice age more than 17 000 years ago.

In Norway, the popular science web page wrote about it. National daily newspapers like Aftenposten and Dagens Næringsliv wrote about it. And of course the local press covered it, like Levangerbladet (the Levanger daily), which tailors to the people of Levanger in Central Norway, the neighboring municipality to where the spruce DNA was actually found. So what was Levanger’s claim to fame? Well, as they wrote in the opening paragraph: “10 300 years old spruce tree remnants found in Lake Rundtjønna – not far from the border to Levanger.”

Popular science versions of the ice age spruce survival story also popped up in the international media, like this follow-up article in Science and Views and News From Norway.
Mari Mette is a botanist, and expert on using DNA profiling to track European trees’ immigration patterns.

So yeah, we’re dealing with a real expert scientist. But my colleague Mari Mette is more than that. She has used her intellectual powers on more than just hard science. Just before Christmas last year, she and her fellow workers at the Norwegian Genetic Resources Centre published a series of beautiful posters about trees in Norway. The posters are really decorative, and they contain a lot of interesting information about spruces, pines, oaks, and apples. The posters are great! And they’re free! And they’re in Norwegian, which is excellent if you’re planning on learning a new language.

The poster series about trees in Norway is a wonderful mixture of solid science and good old fashioned public service information campaigns – everything neatly packaged in delicate design and smashing photos.

My point is: So even if you’re the world Number One in spruce DNA sequencing and you publish in the best scientific journals, that does not necessarily mean you’re not able to make your research come alive for the rest of us.

Simplifying science sounds scary. Ask any scientist who has, voluntarily or by mild coercion, been required to meet up with a journalist, or participate in a radio talk show or interview. Ask them about their sweaty palms and throbbing temples. Ask them about their frustration in explaining seemingly simple concepts even simpler. It can be mind-twistingly painful to twist your brain backwards just in order to find even commoner words for refuges, population dynamics and nunataks.

But it can also be great fun. It can also be a real blessing to be allowed to share your favorite enzyme or ecological niche with hundreds or thousands of other folks. And it can be exciting to find, on your way to work, a fellow commuting passenger reading exactly that op-ed you wrote previously that week for today’s daily paper or iPad.

It can be a kick! And I really hope that even more great scientists like Mari Mette get more kicks from routing their knowledge into the public’s domain. So stick your head out and shout your message loud, clear, and correct. Yes, it’s scary, but it can also be quite rewarding.

Photo 1: Mari Mette in the lab. Photo: Lars Sandved Dalen, Norwegian Forest and Landscape Institute.

Photo 2: This is how the core samples look like. This is where the scientists collect historic information from coal remnants/residues, pollen grains, macrofossils and DNA. Photo: Laura Parducci, Uppsala University.

Photo 3: And here’s the workhorse of the modern laboratory – the RT-PCR. In plain English: Real-time polymerase chain reaction. It’s like a really cool Xerox machine, except that it copies pieces of single strands of DNA, and people with white coats and blue gloves really like to play around with it.

Photo 4: Here Mari Mette is cutting the fine spruce needles in order to extract its DNA which is stored inside the mitochondria, the powerhouse of the cell, where sugar is turned into energy and carbon dioxide – just like in people and animals. Photo: Lars Sandved Dalen, Norwegian Forest and Landscape Institute.

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