TreeTop Barbie and The Last Biotic Frontier | Maddie About Science | NPR
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TreeTop Barbie and The Last Biotic Frontier | Maddie About Science | NPR

NALINI NADKARNI: All right, Maddie. MADDIE SOFIA: This is awesome. NADKARNI: It’s really awesome. SOFIA: This summer I spent a day hanging 50
feet off the ground from the branches of a big leaf maple with Nalini Nadkarni. We were hanging out in the canopy — pretty
much the part of the trees above the forest floor, all the way up to the top. Nalini was one of the first people to ever
study the canopy. Her discoveries have helped shape our understanding of the forests. She’s kind of a big deal. NADKARNI: The canopy represents this unknown
part of the forest world that, you know, people have been studying forests for centuries,
but it’s only been in the last 20, 25, 30 years that people have actually climbed up
into the forest canopy to understand the environment, the plants, the animals, the microbes that
actually live up in the treetops. Every time you climbed a tree there would
be something new, something that scientists hadn’t sort of documented before. And so it was just the perfect place to study. SOFIA: Back in the day, Nalini and a friend
even invented a technique to get up into the trees, basically using a slingshot attached
to a fishing pole. NADKARNI: Oh yeah! Oh my god! SOFIA: You nailed that. NADKARNI: I nailed that sucker. SOFIA: It’s more fishing than I expected. SOFIA: No mercy. NADKARNI: No mercy. NADKARNI: You know every stage has to work. SOFIA: Right. Yeah I’m not getting too excited over here. NADKARNI: Don’t get excited yet. SOFIA: I am. SOFIA: We did it? NADKARNI: We did it. Give me the bump. NADKARNI: So now we’re going to get on the
rope. NADKARNI: Very nice. SOFIA: Thank you, thank you. NADKARNI: And there’s that comforting click. SOFIA: Yes. NADKARNI: The other knee. NADKARNI: Good, now you’re getting there. You got it! SOFIA: Well you know, I’ve got it kind of. Wow. I am the tree. SOFIA: Early on in her career, Nalini got
to see all kinds of canopy life interacting with each other in amazing and complex ways. For example, she was one of the people who
helped figure out how important canopy soil is to the rainforest. NADKARNI: One of the things that really fascinates
me about the canopy is where you get what we call a canopy soil. I mean that is actual soil that is basically
composed of the dead and decomposing mosses that live up here. And it’s so weird you know, you’re here
smelling this soil smell, but you know, you’re up 60 feet above the forest floor. SOFIA: Why is it so important that the canopies
stay around? NADKARNI: I think it’s important for canopies
to be as intact as possible because they do foster so much diversity, that you can get
70 species of mosses on a single tree. In addition, they also are taking in nutrients
from rain and mist and fog and holding onto them. So they’re actually sort of like giant sponges
and making the forest as a whole much more retentive of nutrients. SOFIA: It’s clear to me that you’re in
love with this canopy. NADKARNI: I am in love with this. SOFIA: And is that what motivates you to share that? NADKARNI: Part of the reason that I want to
share it is because I am emotionally attached to it and I like sharing you know what I’m
emotionally attached with with other people. But there’s another part of it, which is
just the importance, the ecological importance of these plants and of primary forests. And I want to share that with other people
so that they know how important it is to conserve these forests. Because the canopy is literally called the
last biotic frontier. It’s been so poorly.. SOFIA: Last biotic frontier? NADKARNI: Last biotic frontier. It’s been so poorly studied. There really aren’t very many people who
study the canopy. SOFIA: I feel like when you say the last biotic
frontier you should look off into the distance. NADKARNI: I will now, OK. SOFIA: You ready? Practice. NADKARNI: Yeah, OK. The last biotic frontier. SOFIA: All right, OK, you know. Both ways are OK ways to go down. NADKARNI: They’re very good ways to go down. SOFIA: Yeah. I could’ve done that one that way. NADKARNI: This way is more fun. SOFIA: Yeah, I could’ve done it if I wanted
to but I chose not to, you know. NADKARNI: No, you didn’t. SOFIA: You know, I could’ve done it. SOFIA: When do you remember falling in love
with trees? NADKARNI: When I was 8 years old. I climbed trees in my parents’ front yard,
there were these eight maples that lined the driveway to our house. I would come home from school and say, “OK,
time to climb a tree.” It was really my own world. It was a place where I could go where there
was no chores, there were no parents, no homework. It was just me and the tree, and that’s
where I fell in love. SOFIA: When you were younger did you have
a lot of role models? NADKARNI: No I didn’t really, no. I mean, nobody I knew climbed trees. I mean certainly no grown-ups. But there was no way that, you know, there
was some female mentor that said, “Oh, here’s where you’ll go if you want to help trees.” I really did not discover that idea of a mentor
or someone guiding me until I was well into graduate school when I really found that. SOFIA: Nalini was determined to get scientists
in front of young women. When she first started out, she was doing
science outreach in all the usual places — universities and museums. But the people that were there were kind of
already bought into science. She wanted to reach people who weren’t out
there looking for science. And in the early 2000s, she and her lab came up with an idea. TreeTop Barbie. At first it was kind of a joke, but then Nalini
really thought about it. If she could harness the power of Barbie,
she could get scientist dolls into the hands of millions of young girls and boys. NADKARNI: So I called up Mattel. You know, I got the phone number. SOFIA: You just, “Hello, Mattel, it’s me.” NADKARNI: “Can I speak with somebody?” And I gave them this idea and they said, “No,
no, no, no, we make our own Barbies, we’re not interested in this, forget it, forget
it, forget it.” SOFIA: Even though Mattel didn’t want TreeTop
Barbie, Nalini decided to make it on her own. One day, she brought TreeTop Barbie to a talk
she was giving, and it caught the attention of a journalist in the audience. That landed Nalini in The New York Times,
and a lot of people saw it, including some people at Mattel. NADKARNI: So they called me up, they called
me up this time and they said, “You can’t do this, you’re infringing on our brand.” And I said, “No, no, no, no, I offered this
to you, go ahead, take it, take it, I’d love to see TreeTop Barbie in Toys R Us. SOFIA: And they said, “That’s not how
it works, Nalini.” NADKARNI: They said, “That’s not how it
works, Nalini, you just, you can’t do this.” So I said, “Well you know, I know a number
of journalists who would be really interested in knowing that Mattel is trying to shut down a small, brown woman who’s trying to inspire young girls to go into science.” SOFIA: Nalini, you strong-armed Mattel. NADKARNI: I did, I did. They called me back a couple days later and
they said, “Well, we’ve talked about it with our lawyers and so forth, and we’re
not going to shut you down, but you can go ahead and do your little small-scale stuff
and we won’t object.” You know I sold maybe 400 Barbies altogether,
really a drop in the bucket. But then, just about a year ago, I got this
call from National Geographic. And National Geographic said, “Guess what? We have started a partnership with Mattel
and we’re going to make five explorer Barbies, and would you help us and advise us on making
sure they have the right outfits and so forth, the right field notes and so forth.” So I was just delighted. I thought, this is incredible, this is like
full circle coming around, this is a dream come true: 15 years before, Mattel says no;
15 years later, fast-forward, society has really changed enough to have inspired Mattel to make these dolls. There’s a change that has happened that
young girls now will buy these Barbies that help them aspire to a science or a discoverer
or an explorer type career. So I think there’s an infinite number of
ways we can do outreach and connect with people, and Barbie’s just kind of a first step. NADKARNI: Now isn’t that the coolest thing? La la la!

5 thoughts on “TreeTop Barbie and The Last Biotic Frontier | Maddie About Science | NPR

  1. This being NPR in a forest, I assumed they would choose the leftist theme of climate change, but instead they went with feminism. Nice switcheroo.

  2. Ok NPR in the description it says "Nalini Nadkarni was one of the first people to ever study the canopy" except she's not just people she's a scientist please use her appropriate titles

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