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SALT LAKE CITY — While other little girls played with dolls, Nalini Nadkarni hung out in trees.
“It was kind of my place. I felt safe there — I felt it was just a place where I belonged,” she recalled.
“Because they protected me in a way, they gave me a place,” Nadkarni swore that when she grew up, she would do something to protect trees. She thought she’d be a forest ranger or a firefighter, until in college she learned about the field of ecology.
That sparked a forest ecology career that’s spanned more than 30 years. Now a professor of biology at the University of Utah, Nadkarni explores forest canopies made up of the plants and animals that live in treetops. Most of her work has focused on the tropical rainforest of Costa Rica, but she has also traversed the temperate rainforests of Washington state.
And as part of her most recent adventure, Nadkarni helped advise Mattel on the creation of a line of National Geographic explorer Barbies in an effort to inspire children’s interest in trees, conservation and careers in science.
While donning climbing gear and exploring the forest canopy, Nadkarni says, “we see animals like howler monkeys and sloths and anteaters, and these amazing plants, which are what really interest me — these ferns and orchids and bromeliads that basically, in this cloud forest, this tropical cloud forest, just cover every square inch of branches and trunks.”
The professor researches how those plants live, how they get their nutrients, and what role they play in the forest’s life cycle.
Nadkarni has learned that though canopy plants and animals look strong, they’re “fragile” and affected by disturbances like climate change and invasive plants. “And so one of the things that I really feel is important is to try to communicate to other people — not just other scientists, but also to the general public — how vital and important and beautiful, and really amazing, these canopy-dwelling plants and animals really are.”
Throughout her career, she’s sought to connect with people of all ages and interests to help them care more about the environment. She works with prisons, faith communities and others, sharing her passion for trees. About 15 years ago, Nadkarni brainstormed a way to help kids love trees, too.
Though climbing trees was her thing as a child, she said, “not every little girl has that, especially girls who live in cities, or who live in places where trees don’t grow, or they’re not accessible to them.”
“So then I began thinking, ‘OK, so what do girls love already? And how can I hitchhike my love of trees and my concern for them onto something that girls already care for?’”
Barbie seemed like the perfect answer.
“Then maybe those little girls who love and aspire to be Barbie, would also say, ‘Oh, maybe I can also aspire to be a scientist or an adventurer, or to make new discoveries, or to take risks.’ And even if she doesn’t want to herself become a scientist, because not everybody needs to be a scientist, maybe she’ll just appreciate science more, or trees more, or forests more,” Nadkarni explained.
She began dressing used dolls with clothes and accessories of scientists, creating what she called “Treetop Barbie.” After pitching the idea to Mattel, which told her the dolls wouldn’t sell, she began selling them herself for cost.
That is, until a couple years ago, when National Geographic — which she’s had a long relationship with working as a speaker and involved in television programs — contacted her to help advise Mattel as it created a line of scientist Barbies.
The process included helping the company understand what the clothes and accessories should look like, and ensuring accuracy in wording on the Barbies’ packaging.
In order to maintain objectivity, Nadkarni wasn’t paid for her work. Instead, she received a one-of-a-kind doll made in her image while working in the field — complete with a rope, a little helmet, binoculars, and a “write in the rain notebook,” which scientists use in the field because they can still take down notes in the books after they get wet.
“When I saw this, I just screamed,” she recalled while holding the doll, which she says is dressed just like her when she works, except for some “more fashionable” rain boots.
Nadkarni says the experience taught her “if scientists could reach out, and at least for a little while, lift this idea that we know everything, or that we have the answers to everything, then maybe we would do a better job of protecting things that are really important.”
Instead of saying, “‘I’m busy writing papers or proposals,’ there’s a shift where scientists are finding that public engagement is a benefit and necessary,” she said. “I think it’s a really hopeful time, that if Mattel can now make explorer Barbies and sell them in Kmart and Walmart and Toys R Us, to me that’s a big, strong, fat message that’s really positive.”
Working with Mattel, Nadkarni says she realized the company cares about the same things she does, like conservation and inspiring women to enter science fields.
“I need to be the one who’s humble, and not just superior,” she says she learned.
“I think the biggest takeaway was that I as a scientist, and as a woman, and as an activist, and as a conservationist, I have to open my mind to a corporation like Mattel, and I have to put aside some of my preconceptions in order to move forward some of the ideas, and urgency of the ideas, that I want to convey,” Nadkarni explained.
“And so I have to stop just saying, ‘Oh, Barbie, I would never think of interacting with that horrible corporation or that horrible doll,’ but instead say, ‘How can we work together to use the power Barbie has to inspire young girls?’”
Nadkarni also hopes the Barbies will inspire a conversation between parents and children about conservation — and how donating dolls after a child grows out of them instead of throwing them away can protect the environment by keeping nonbiodegradable plastic out of the oceans.
The line of dolls — which includes a marine biologist, astrophysicist, nature photojournalist, wildlife conservationist and entomologist — is available from National Geographic’s website, as well as retailers like Walmart and Target.