The Colgate Scene
September 2006

People on the go

Kimberly Norris Russell '92 [Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]

Power lines have always created a buzz, and Kimberly Norris Russell '92 hopes to add to the noise. Naturally.

Russell, a conservation biologist, has concluded that the brushy, scrubby areas under power lines make healthy habitats for native bees. She specializes in the study of arthropods -- invertebrate animals such arachnids or insects that have exoskeletons and segmented bodies, and her recent study made headlines on NationalGeographic.com and NPR's Pulse of the Planet, among others. The news was good: if they're managed in a particular way, and not mowed down regularly, the shrubs and flowers that grow beneath power lines are particularly fine for bees. Russell and a colleague made the discovery when they collected data in power line areas at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. Because the bees pollinate everything from wildflowers to agricultural products, she said, "Power line rights of way could create a huge amount of land that could really benefit a lot of species."

Russell, who was a biology major at Colgate, hopes to convince utility companies to manage power line areas in a way that preserves bee habitats, a goal that's right in line with her life's work. "The main thing for me is to be an advocate for arthropod conservation and to push that field further on. It still needs more attention, more funding," she said.

Arthropods aren't always a favorite specialty for researchers, Russell said, due to a number of reasons, including what she calls the "ick factor." The "charismatic" species, such as birds or bears, often get more attention, leading to a huge lack of knowledge in arthropod conservation. "The bottom line is, if you want to conserve biodiversity, you have to think about arthropods," she said.

Russell spends a lot of time thinking about these invertebrates while working under a grant at the American Museum of Natural History. There, with others, she's developing a computer algorithm that will identify and provide information on spiders simply from an uploaded photograph. It's an innovation that could dramatically reduce research time for scientists or students -- especially in the field of arthropods, where there are vast numbers of species to study -- by doing the labor-intensive work of identification.

The technology would be an exciting development. "Given the time and the information, we can develop these identification tools for any organisms that can be identified visually," she said.

Bees, of course, are part of the plan. "My hope is that I can get more funding specifically for the bees and develop ID tools for them," she said. In the meantime, she'll continue to study them and work with power line companies to implement habitat-helping practices.

"You start out convinced you're going to save the world in five years," she said. "But then you realize that you have to pick your contribution and your piece, and you focus on that and what you can do."

Certainly, because of Russell's focus, the bees are already better off.


Chris Paine '83 [Photo courtesy of Chris Paine]

Chris Paine '83 calls it a murder mystery he was determined to solve.

"In 1997, I leased an electric car from General Motors," he recounted. Los Angeles, where he was living, was having severe air quality problems, and he thought he'd do his "little bit." But he never expected what happened next.

"I fell in love with my car," he said. His no-emission EV1 required no gas and charged overnight in his garage for a cost of about $3.

"Quickly, it became my primary car," he said. So when carmakers suddenly started taking the highly efficient, environmentally friendly EV1s off the road and Paine had to return his to GM, he said he was baffled.

"I kept waiting for a major media outlet to do a story on it," said Paine, a documentary filmmaker. "But the only press on the story was that electric cars had failed in the marketplace. I knew it was a spin on what actually happened, so we decided we had to make a movie about it."

But first, there was the funeral. Paine and other ex-EV1 drivers in L.A. staged a memorial service to try to get press on the death of their beloved cars. The coverage, he said, fell short of what they'd hoped for, so he set out to tell the story himself.

In his documentary, Who Killed the Electric Car?, Paine explores what he saw as the suspicious demise of EV1s. Was it lack of consumer demand, as the carmakers claimed? Or were dubious forces afoot?

"Documentaries have a life of their own," he said. "As a filmmaker, you need to respect where they're naturally going." During one exciting moment, Paine's crew received word that electric cars were being crushed in Mesa, Ariz., and not being recycled as promised by the carmaker.

"We thought, `you know, this is going to cost us $3,000, but let's rent a helicopter and go see if there's any truth to this tip," he said.

But it isn't just a carmaker with a car crusher in the desert that Paine points to as guilty. The documentary examines roles of numerous "suspects" -- consumers, the government, carmakers, oil companies -- and the film is generating controversy and conversation. Paine said he's glad. "Getting off foreign oil and into cleaner domestic alternatives is the number one issue for our times. Change can be challenging, but electric cars prove the future can be fun, too, if vested interests just stop fighting them."

Sony Pictures Classics picked up Electric Car for distribution three months before its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, and it opened in large cities this summer. Shortly thereafter, Internet searches for the movie produced hundreds of hits both opposing and supporting the film -- significantly more coverage than the EV1's death garnered originally. GM even purchased the Google keywords "Who Killed the Electric Car" to promote its own spin, Paine said. But did he, in the end, solve the EV1 murder mystery?
"My roots are as an activist and a filmmaker," said Paine, who has replaced his electric car with a Toyota RAV4 EV, a model that was sold briefly. "I want people to get fired up about getting this country out of the twentieth century. We can do it if we have the will." In other words, for Paine, this case isn't closed yet.

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