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This Scientist Is Working To Get More Girls Up Into Tree Canopies


We know a lot about the world's rainforests. Scientists have studied them for a long time. We know less about a part of those forests called the canopy. That is the world above the forest floor, all the way to the tops of the trees.

Maddie Sofia hosts NPR's new daily science podcast Short Wave. For an upcoming episode, she explored a rainforest canopy with a pioneering scientist who wants to get more young girls up into the trees.

MADDIE SOFIA, BYLINE: That scientist is ecologist Nalini Nadkarni.

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

SOFIA: She was my guide deep in the woods of Olympic National Forest in Washington state.

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

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

NADKARNI: OK. So that is called Dicranum. That's another species of moss.

SOFIA: She's kind of a big deal.

NADKARNI: I like to call it plushy moss just because it's so soft and so plushy, so much like a little pillow.

Here's Hilacomen flendins (ph). This is Racomitrium. There's, like, three, four different species of moss right there.

SOFIA: Now, even though we were in the Pacific Northwest, this is a rainforest.

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


All that rain produces an incredible array of plant life.

NADKARNI: So see how soft these mosses are?


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

SOFIA: I mean, yeah.


SOFIA: But the plant life that Nalini studies...

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


...All of it is about...


...Sixty feet off the ground.

NADKARNI: All right, Maddie.

SOFIA: (Laughter) This is awesome.

NADKARNI: It's really awesome.

SOFIA: Here in the canopy, we're climbing through a dizzying thicket of bright green leaves and moss and ferns, all bathed in sunlight.

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

SOFIA: And the science of this world - it's a relatively new thing.

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: Over the course of those decades, researching canopies in the Pacific Northwest, as well as the forests of Costa Rica, Nalini's 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. And instead of bark, we're looking at a tightly packed bed of brown dirt.

NADKARNI: I mean, that is 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 invertebrates...

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. They're living plants. They're mosses. They're ferns. They're 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 noticed when she was first getting started in canopy research - there were very few women scientists doing this kind of work. And so in the early 2000s, she set out to change that.

NADKARNI: 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 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: OK. This is kind of a long story, but the short version is this. Because she wasn't busy enough helping to, you know, basically create an entire new field of scientific research, Nalini decided, you know, in her free time that 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 for years, Nalini and her students would buy up old used dolls from Goodwill, make little explorer outfits for them and then she'd sell them, complete with a little handbook of canopy facts. She even showed off TreeTop Barbie in a TED talk.


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.

SOFIA: Preaching the Barbie gospel in front of audiences like this at first made Nalini really nervous.

NADKARNI: Like, should I really be spending time with this? And 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.

SOFIA: And so for years, the Barbies were Nalini's own little project - until last year when she got an unexpected phone call from National Geographic.

NADKARNI: 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.

SOFIA: Did you...

NADKARNI: This is 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.

SOFIA: So it happened. Now there's a wildlife photojournalist Barbie, astrophysicist Barbie, a whole series of tiny-waisted scientist and explorer dolls. And Nalini says, yeah, she gets it. There are still ways in which Barbie is not the perfect role model.

NADKARNI: 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.

KELLY: That is ecologist Nalini Nadkarni speaking with Maddie Sofia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Madeline Sofia is the host of Short Wave — NPR's daily science podcast. Short Wave will bring a little science into your life, all in about 10 minutes. Sometimes it'll be a good story, a smart conversation, or a fun explainer, but it'll always be interesting and easy to understand. It's a break from the relentless news cycle, but you'll still come away with a better understanding of the world around you.