Barbies are a universal cultural icon. Their manufacturer, Mattel, expanded the appearance of their dolls beyond their original look in 1959 to the wide array of ethnicities, careers, and stylings available today. One thing Barbie wasn’t, back in the early 2000’s, was a canopy scientist. Nalini Nadkarni recognized the importance of Barbie in the lives of young children and the influence the doll has over shaping children’s perceptions of career possibilities. This inspired her to create TreeTop Barbie, a tiny public engagement of science project. She and her students bought secondhand Barbies and outfitted them with canopy climbing gear and an educational booklet to offer forest ecology as a model for a possible career choice.
In 2019, National Geographic and Mattel sought out Nalini to serve as a consultant on a new partnership. They were developing a line of Barbies that focused on making science interesting and accessible to the children who play with them. With input from National Geographic, Mattel created dolls, outfits, and accessories to highlight women who are astrophysicists, nature photographers, entomologists, and wildlife biologists.