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.
National Public Radio recently highlighted this relationship, as well as Nalini’s broader efforts to get girls into canopy science. Maddie About Science, a series led by NPR Science Desk Host Maddie Sofia, accompanied Nalini into the canopy and filmed from the trees. In the video and subsequent broadcasts on All Things Considered and Short Wave, Nalini highlighted the experience of climbing through the canopy to see the world above the forest floor. She also discussed the long route the Barbie idea took, ultimately marketed with an international reach.
Nalini is grateful for the opportunity to work with National Geographic and Mattel on such an important project. She is equally grateful to Maddie Sofia and NPR for their coverage of the project, and the importance of getting girls into canopy science.