When Nalini Nadkarni was a young scientist in the 1980s, she wanted to study the canopy – the part of the trees directly above the forest floor to the highest branches.
But back then, people had not found a good way to get to the canopy easily, so it was difficult to investigate the treetops. And Nadkarni's graduate school advisers did not really think it was wise to study the canopy. "These are just Tarzan and Jane stuff, you know that's just glamor stuff," Nadkarni remembers as consultants told her. "There's no science up there that you have to do."
They could not have been more wrong. During her career Nadharni's work has shed light on the unique and complex world of treetops.
It has shaped our understanding of treetops ̵
She also discovered that some trees are able to extract aerial roots from their branches and trunks. Similar to underground roots, the aerial roots can transport water and nutrients into the tree.
While Nadkarni's early work as an ecologist, she began to realize something different: there were not many women who conducted roofing research.
Nadkarni was determined to change that. In the early 2000s, she and her lab colleagues came up with the idea of TreeTop Barbie, a version of the popular Barbie doll available to young girls.
She passed the idea on to Mattel, the company she makes Barbie. "When I suggested this idea, they said: 'We are not interested, it does not matter to us,' says Nadkarni. "We make our own Barbies."
Becky Harlan / NPR
Nadkarni decided to produce them anyway. She tasted old Barbies; instructed a tailor to make the clothes for TreeTop Barbie; and she created a TreeTop Barbie field guide for canopy plants. Nadkarni sold the dolls at cost and brought TreeTop Barbie to conferences and lectures.
Their efforts landed on the pages of the New York Times and finally the news came back to Mattel. The owners of Barbie wanted her to shut down TreeTop Barbie for trademark infringement.
Nadkarni pushed back.
"Well, I know a number of journalists who are really interested in knowing that Mattel is trying to close a small, brown woman trying to inspire young girls to go to science," recalls she joined Mattel.
Mattel gave way. The company allowed her to continue her small business. According to Nadkarni, she sold about 400 dolls over the years.
Then, in 2018, more than a decade after Nadkarni established TreeTop Barbie, she received an incredible phone call. National Geographic had partnered with Mattel to make a series of Barbies focused on exploration and science. And they wanted Nadkarni to be a consultant.
"I thought that's incredible, it's like closing the circle, this is a dream come true," says Nadkarni.
Mattel, for his part, is "thrilled to work with National Geographic and Nalini". a spokesman told NPR.
Nadkarni knows that everyone disapproves of her work with Barbie. Barbie's role in creating an unrealistic beauty standard for young women was discussed. Nadkarni has also struggled with how she feels about it.
"In my opinion, she's a plastic doll, yes, she's so configured that we should not think about how women should be shaped," says Nadkarni. "But the fact that there are now Barbie's discoverers who are role models for little girls so they can literally see themselves as wildlife photographers, astrophysicists, entomologists, or tree-climbers … It's never perfect, but I think it's a step forward. "
Nadkarni is a professor emeritus at Evergreen State College and currently a professor at the Department of Biology at University of Utah .