Environmental Science in Rochester’s Backyard

By Emma Grygotis

Featured photo: Dr. Beverly Brown (far left) shares how to care for seedlings with an audience of Expo volunteers and attendees. The Nazareth College Greenhouse donated nearly 1,000 seedlings of many different varieties, which they distributed as a way of increasing opportunities for guests to think about the ways plants can benefit our everyday lives. (Photo used with permission, courtesy of Wanaruk Photography)

Even in Western New York, where the natural beauty of the Finger Lakes and the Adirondack mountains are never more than a short car ride away, city life makes it easy to lose touch with the ecosystems that surround and sustain us. As smaller, faster electronics put whole computers in our pockets and we continue to explore the farthest reaches of outer space, scientific research can sometimes seem to widen the gap between people and the natural world.

Two local Rochester organizations are working to reverse that perception, using science to reconnect us with the plant and animal communities that are struggling to survive in our own backyards. Both groups participated in last year’s first annual Rochester Science Expo, along with many other students, academic scientists, and local businesses united toward a common goal: to celebrate the many ways Rochester’s robust scientific community makes our city a healthier, more vibrant place.

Green plants for wellness

Dr. Beverly Brown is an Assistant Professor of Biology at Nazareth College, where she serves as the director the Horticultural Therapy Program. She’s interested in the ways plants improve physical and mental health, as well as the communities can develop and thrive around green spaces.

“I love plants,” Brown says, “and realize that that many people don’t even see plants in their daily lives. It’s called plant blindness.” She wants to work to help people not only incorporate more greenery into their everyday routines, but also to notice the places where plants already play important and beneficial roles.

“My passion is getting anyone and everyone to stop and notice even one plant or plant-product every day,” Brown said.

Her demonstration at last year’s event took a simple step in that direction. Brown spent the months before the Expo growing nearly one thousand individual seedlings, which she distributed free of charge. She decided to volunteer as a way to share her enthusiasm for science with the Expo’s approximately 1700 attendees.

“As a scientist, one step I can take is to help everyone understand how much fun science can be,” Brown said.

Education through empathy

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Photo: Nick Hadad (performing as “Howler Wolf,” left) and Katie Gill (right), discuss wolf behavior, including demonstrations of the many different vocal cues that wolves use to communicate with one another. (Photo used with permission, courtesy of Wanaruk Photography)

Animals that are labeled as “gross, creepy or vicious,” are often disregarded as unimportant, or worse, dangerous. Nick Hadad and Katie Gill, the two-person team behind ROC Animal School, want to work against these common misconceptions to help audiences appreciate the ways in which wild animals and humans are not so different. The business combines their individual talents in performance and creative media with a shared love of animals to produce family-friendly performances by animal mascots such as “Howler Wolf” and “Dakota Coyote.”

“What we want people to take away from our programs is that every living thing on this earth has a purpose,” the pair says. “If we do not work to conserve wildlife, entire ecosystems could be thrown drastically out of balance, which could have a profound impact on people’s lives. In this case, empathy is a form of self-preservation.”

The team participated in the Expo not only to share their own work, but also to connect with other local researchers and educators who are striving to better their communities through the scientific process.

“At heart, we are super nerds with a broad range of interests and we relished the idea of joining up with a group of people that shared our drive and enthusiasm,” Gill said.

We, the Rochester NY March for Science organizing team, are delighted to be able to once again host scientists like Beverly Brown, Nick Hadad, and Katie Gill at the Rochester Science Expo. We hope to see you there!

About the Author
Emma Grygotis is one of the founding directors of the Rochester NY March for Science, and now serves as both the organization’s Secretary and co-chair of the Expo Committee. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Pharmacology at the University of Rochester, studying the effects of ultrasound on protein structure and function. Emma joined the organizing team out of a desire to help foster opportunities for science enthusiasts of all ages to engage in meaningful conversations about the complex challenges our society faces.

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