Exploring The Rainforest Canopy With Ecologist Nalini Nadkarni Encore episode: Pioneering ecologist Nalini Nadkarni takes us up into the canopy — the area above the forest floor — where she helped research and document this unexplored ecosystem. Plus: the story of her decades-long effort to get more women into science, and how she found a surprising ally in the fight — Barbie. Video and more from Maddie's trip to the canopy is here. Follow Maddie on Twitter @maddie_sofia. Email the show at shortwave@npr.org.
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Exploring The Canopy With 'TreeTop Barbie'

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Exploring The Canopy With 'TreeTop Barbie'

Exploring The Canopy With 'TreeTop Barbie'

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Hey, everybody - Maddie Sofia here with SHORT WAVE reporter Emily Kwong.

EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: Today we thought you might appreciate a little joy in your life, especially now.

SOFIA: That's right. Here on SHORT WAVE, we want to bring you episodes that explain what's happening with the coronavirus but also episodes that feature other interesting science.

KWONG: Like this one from the very first week of SHORT WAVE.

SOFIA: It's probably one of my favorites.

KWONG: Absolutely. It's got rainforests. It's got slingshots, a decade-long conflict with big Barbie. Maddie gets rope burn.

SOFIA: (Laughter).

KWONG: What's not to love?

SOFIA: The rope burn, Kwong - it's clearly the rope burn.

KWONG: These are the sacrifices you make, Maddie.

SOFIA: (Laughter).

KWONG: All right, on to the show. Enjoy.


SOFIA: You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.


SOFIA: One day this past summer, I got to visit a rainforest.

NALINI NADKARNI: OK. That's licorice fern. That is - the scientific name is Polypodium vulgare.

SOFIA: I was there with ecologist Nalini Nadkarni.

NADKARNI: This is called Selaginella. This is called - this is a club moss. It's actually a very primitive plant.

SOFIA: Nalini has been studying and exploring ecosystems like this for 35 years.

NADKARNI: OK. So that is called Dicranum. That's another species of moss. I like to call it plushy moss just because it's so soft and so plushy, so much like a little pillow. Here's Hylocomium splendens. This is Racomitrium. There's, like, three, four different species of moss right there.

SOFIA: A couple other things about this rainforest - you're probably thinking, rainforest, so tropics. Nah - we were in the Pacific Northwest, Olympic National Forest in Washington state.

NADKARNI: And it's called a temperate rainforest - so rainforest because we get - it's characterized by having a lot of rainfall. There are about 120 inches of rain a year.


The other thing about this trip to the forest is that all these plants...

NADKARNI: So see how soft these mosses are?


NADKARNI: Don't you just want to sleep on them?

SOFIA: I mean, yeah.


SOFIA: All of Nalini's decades-long work...

NADKARNI: OK. I'm going to come up side by side with you.

SOFIA: All of it is about - wow - 60 feet off the ground.

NADKARNI: All right, Maddie.

NADKARNI: (Laughter) This is awesome.

NADKARNI: It's really awesome.

SOFIA: This is called the canopy - pretty much everything above the forest floor all the way up to the tops of the trees.

NADKARNI: All right. Come up with me now, little rope.

SOFIA: The canopy here is a dizzying thicket of bright green leaves and mosses and ferns all bathed in sunlight. And we knew very little about it.

NADKARNI: Because the canopy is literally called the 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.

SOFIA: OK, you ready? Practice.

NADKARNI: Yeah, OK - the last biotic frontier.


SOFIA: So today on the show, pioneering scientist Nalini Nadkarni on the canopy - plus, a little later on in the episode, Nalini's decades-long fight to get more women into science and how she found an unlikely ally in Barbie. Yeah, I thought it was weird, too. It's not that weird, though. Stick around.


SOFIA: I'm Maddie Sofia, and you're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

All right. So let's back up - down. Back on the ground in Olympic National Forest, Nalini told me that in the grand scheme of things, canopy science is actually pretty new.

NADKARNI: 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 up in the treetops.

SOFIA: One of the hurdles for scientists was literally just figuring out how to get up to the tops of the trees. So Nalini and a few friends figured out a way to adapt some mountain climbing techniques to get up into the canopy. And that means shooting ropes into the trees.

NADKARNI: So I invented this thing called the master caster, which is just a metal rod. And we welded it so it has this little hole here for the line.

SOFIA: Basically, this master caster thing is part fishing rod, part slingshot.

Nalini, this looks like a garage sale...

NADKARNI: It does.

SOFIA: ...Meets a 14-year-old boy's dream...

NADKARNI: (Laughter).

SOFIA: ...In which you could both slingshot and cast.

NADKARNI: (Laughter) That's right.

SOFIA: And so with a fishing weight loaded into the slingshot...

NADKARNI: So I'm thinking right up there.

SOFIA: Yeah.

Nalini cast it...


SOFIA: ...Masterfully.


NADKARNI: Oh, yeah (laughter). Did I tell you where it was going to go or what?

SOFIA: We set the ropes...

NADKARNI: Now put all your weight on this.

SOFIA: ...Got harnessed in...

NADKARNI: Right. Step down.

SOFIA: ...And then started the long, hard process of inching up the rope...

NADKARNI: You're going to go into a crouch and lift your legs up. That's it. OK?

SOFIA: ...Kind of like a caterpillar.

And then stand.

NADKARNI: Exactly. You've got it.

SOFIA: All right. Well, you know...

NADKARNI: That's it.

SOFIA: I've got it, kind of.

NADKARNI: (Laughter).

SOFIA: Over the course of her career researching canopies in the Pacific Northwest as well as in the forests of Costa Rica, Nalini has documented all kinds of things about the canopy. Sixty feet up this giant maple tree, she shows me one of the cooler ones.

NADKARNI: Just looking at the underside of these mosses, like, there's this canopy soil. Let me dig some out over here.

SOFIA: Nalini peels back a thick fistful of moss from the branch on the tree. Instead of bark, we're looking at a tightly packed bed of brown dirt.

NADKARNI: I mean, that is the actual soil that is basically composed of the dead and decomposing mosses that live up here. And there are, like, earthworms that live up here. There are...

SOFIA: So this is, like soil, like, on the ground, but up...

NADKARNI: Exactly. It's called - it's a canopy soil.


NADKARNI: Look at that. And it's so weird. You know, you're here smelling the soil smell, but you're - you know, you're up 60 feet above the forest floor. So it's this sort of whole world that the canopy creates. There are living plants. There are mosses. There are ferns. There's soil. And it's all kind of - invertebrates that live here, birds that forage for these invertebrates that live in the canopy soil. So it's like this microcosm, this mini-ecosystem that's going on kind of independent of the forest floor but, at the same time, interacting with the forest as a whole.


SOFIA: Of course, today, canopies all over the world face threats from climate change, from logging, fire and deforestation. And a lot of Nalini's work now is about trying to figure out what would happen if we lost such a complex, interconnected ecosystem.

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. And each of those mosses is sort of living its life with its insects and invertebrates and supporting birds. And so it's just part of this sort of whole cycle of what makes a primary forest important.


SOFIA: Here's another thing Nalini discovered when she was first getting started in canopy research. There were very few women scientists doing this kind of work. And so she set out to change that.

NADKARNI: But actually, this was just a fabulous day that happened in my lab. I had this forest canopy lab. Undergraduates would work there. My graduate students would work with (ph) me. And we were just kicking around ideas like, how could we make the forest canopy more meaningful to not just other scientists but to regular people? Like, how about young girls? They need encouragement. And somebody said, well, what about Barbie?

SOFIA: All right. Pause - Barbie time. Because she wasn't busy enough helping to basically create an entirely new field of scientific study, in the early 2000s, Nalini decided, you know, in her free time, she would try to create, market and get into the hands of little girls and boys everywhere TreeTop Barbie.

NADKARNI: What if we took this iconic doll, which is so symbolic of what young girls aspire to - what if we just put this shell around her which is a canopy biologist?

SOFIA: So Nalini called Mattel, the company that owns Barbie.

NADKARNI: And then when I proposed this idea, they said, no, no, no, we're not interested. That has no meaning to us. We make our own Barbies. You know, you can't do this. Forget it. Forget it.

SOFIA: Right.

NADKARNI: So that's when we said, well, why don't we just do it ourselves then if Mattel's not going to take it?

SOFIA: A couple of trips to Goodwill later to get some recycled Barbies...

NADKARNI: We began just sort of making our own TreeTop Barbies. And I started bringing canopy Barbie along with me and, you know, talking to my fellow scientists and saying, look, you guys. We not only have to do our good science. We need to start encouraging people from outside science in. And this is one way that we might do it.


NADKARNI: Trees are wonderful arenas for discovery.

SOFIA: This is Nalini's 2009 TED talk, which, by the way, is a hugely nerve-racking thing for scientists. You're hooked up to this hands-free Britney Spears mic to give a talk that will basically be your top Google hit for life. To stand on that stage, showing off a little plastic TreeTop Barbie - it was a lot.

NADKARNI: But should I really be spending time with this? Are people going to think it's weird that me as a scientist and me as a woman scientist and me as a brown woman scientist is spending her time doing this? There's sort of a risk that goes along with that. But I felt that the potential good that could come out of it, of providing a real role model for a little girl who doesn't even know that the canopy exists to study, you know, like when I was a kid. And so if that can happen, then I think it's worth the risk.


NADKARNI: What we do, my students in my lab and I, is we buy Barbies from Goodwill and Value Village. We dress her in clothes that have been made by seamstresses, and we send her out with a canopy handbook.


NADKARNI: And my feeling is - thank you - that we've taken this pop icon, and we have just tweaked her a little bit to become an ambassador who can carry the message that being a woman scientist studying treetops is actually a really great thing.


SOFIA: Before we wrap up, I haven't told you the best part about the whole TreeTop Barbie thing. Once the TreeTop Barbie started getting some attention, Mattel found out, and they called Nalini. They said, whoa, whoa, whoa, you can't just make your own Barbies and sell them. Shut it down. Nalini said she was sorry, that she really didn't mean any harm and that they could still have the idea if they wanted it.

NADKARNI: And they said, no, no, no, you can't do this. You can't do this. You can't do this. And I said, well, how interesting. 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...

SOFIA: (Laughter).

NADKARNI: ...Who's trying to inspire young girls to become scientists and explorers.

SOFIA: Nalini, did you strong-arm Mattel?


SOFIA: (Laughter).

NADKARNI: And they responded very nicely. They said, we'll get back to you.

SOFIA: We asked Mattel about this, and they didn't get into specifics about any past back-and-forth with Nalini. But Nalini says the company told her, OK, fine. You can keep making TreeTop Barbie - which she did, pretty quietly for the last 10 or 15 years. And then...

NADKARNI: And then, last year, I got a call from National Geographic. And they said, Dr. Nadkarni, we recognize that you have, you know, sort of forged the way with this Barbie science explorer sort of thing. We have partnered with Mattel to make these five explorer Barbies, and would you be the adviser on this? And I said, fantastic. It was like a dream come true.

SOFIA: Did you say, it's about stinking time?

NADKARNI: I - well, I didn't say stinking time. I said, it's about time. It's so great that you're doing this. So...

SOFIA: So it happened. Now there's a polar marine biologist Barbie, astrophysicist Barbie, wildlife photojournalist Barbie, entomologist Barbie and wildlife conservationist Barbie.

What would you say to people that were saying, like, Barbie is still this unachievable image...


SOFIA: ...Of, like, beauty for women...


SOFIA: ...And you should stay away from it?

NADKARNI: Yeah. I think about that a lot. I think it's a big question that we need to ask ourselves. My sense is, yes, she's a plastic doll. Yes, she's configured in all the ways that we should not be thinking of how women are - should be shaped. And yes, she looks so perfect - which, you know, women scientists especially always think, I have to be perfect. I have to be good. I have to be better. I have to be smarter and be more productive.

But the fact that now there are Barbies out here in the world, these explorer Barbies that are being role models for little girls so that they can literally see themselves as a nature photographer or an astrophysicist - and that fills me with joy because it brings me back to when I was an 8-year-old kid all alone up in a tree, saying, I want to somehow help trees, but I don't quite know how. Now these girls have a way to do that. And I think that's splendid.


SOFIA: Nalini Nadkarni. There's a whole video of our trip to the canopy. Find a link to it in our episode info.

All right, Nalini.

NADKARNI: All right.

SOFIA: How do get down from this place?

NADKARNI: Well, there a couple of ways to go down. One of them is rappelling. One - well, three ways - one is falling, which we don't do. And the other one is just go down...


SOFIA: OK. Before we go, one thing we're going to do on the show from time to time is answer questions from you about all things science. So if you have a science-related question, email us at shortwave@npr.org. We may answer it for you. Also, bonus - if your question is Halloween-themed because Halloween is coming up - again, shortwave@npr.org.

I'm Maddie Sofia. Thank you for listening. We'll be back with more SHORT WAVE next week.


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