Making science cool, one tree or Barbie at a time

Wednesday, January 27, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST
Nalini Nadkarni, a forest ecologist, studies a rainforest tree canopy. Nadkarni works on epiphtyes, tree-borne plants that survive on nutrients they get from the rain.

COLUMBIA — Nalini Nadkarni's passion is rainforest canopies, but, really, any tree will do. Finding ways to show people why they shouldn't take trees for granted has become an important part of Nadkarni's work over the last decade.

A professor of environmental studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., Nadkarni will speak this week in the MU Undergraduate Mentoring in Environmental Biology seminar series. Her passion and her skill at passing knowledge along to nonscientific audiences are the main reasons she was asked, said Candace Galen, the MU biological sciences professor who invited her.

If you go

What: Nalini Nadkarni, professor of environmental studies at Evergreen State College in Washington State, will speak at two seminars at MU

When: 2 p.m. Thursday and 10:30 a.m. Saturday

Where: On Thursday, in room 572 in the Bond Life Sciences Center, 1201 Rollins St.; and on Saturday, in Monsanto Auditorium, also at Bond Life Sciences Center

Admission: Free and open to the public



Nadkarni said her seminar on Thursday will be about the importance of forest canopies and will also include a summary of her research in the last 20 years. On Saturday, she will be featured in the Saturday Morning Science series.

One of her efforts to inform the public about forests and environmental science was Treetop Barbie, a Barbie doll who wears explorer's gear for field research. The goal was to show girls that women can do forest canopy research. The concept that Nadkarni pitched to Mattel, which manufactures Barbies, included a small pamphlet on forest ecology.

Nadkarni said she told Mattel she didn't want money — she just wanted to see the project developed. For a long time after that first contact, there was no word from Mattel, so she decided to go ahead and make the dolls herself, using old Barbies found at Goodwill.

She started getting phone calls from people who wanted to buy them for their children and grandchildren, and it became a cottage industry. Nadkarni said she was making the dolls at a loss but continued because the outreach value was worth it.

"Barbie’s cool to young girls," she said.

Later, a New York Times reporter wrote a story about Treetop Barbie, and that got Mattel's attention, Nadkarni said. The company told her she could not keep making the dolls, but it wasn't interested in doing so. She still makes them from time to time.

Nadkarni, 55, said her interest in public outreach began 10 years ago, when she heard the sound of chainsaws not far from her research site in a Costa Rican national forest park.

"I realized they were clearing forest just outside the park," she said. It occurred to her to start talking to developers.

Nadkarni said that during the early years of her career, there was not much incentive to talk about research with nonscientific audiences. As a scientist, she said, "most of your work is about grants and teaching." When she started working on ideas for outreach in the late 1990s, she kept it secret from other scientists, because she thought they would view it as an unwise use of time and less valuable than research.

Nadkarni said that once she started sharing her outreach ideas with the science community, she got positive feedback. Having approval of peers made it easier to concentrate on finding the most effective ways to talk about her research with the public.

Nadkarni has worked with inmates at a correctional center in her area, and she has visited churches, synagogues and meditation centers. Focusing on the spiritual qualities that many religions attribute to trees, she came up with a list of topics to prompt conversations about the importance of forest ecosystems in a religious service setting.

"Hammering people with facts and figures just doesn’t work," Nadkarni said. "If you can make it cool, that’s what works."


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