Indian-American ecologist gets her own Barbie

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Forest ecologist Nalini Nadkarni’s doppleganger Barbie complete with actual field equipment. (Photo: Nalini Nadkarni, courtesy Utah.edu)

An Indian-American forest ecologist who for years, made Barbie dolls representing her profession finally got her own from Mattel. the makers of the legendary toy.

Recently, Nalini Nadkarni of University of Utah, a pioneer in forest canopy research, received a one-of-a-kind doll made in her likeness, complete with custom accessories representative of her career, including a climbing rope, binoculars, boots, notebook and a helmet, which sits on her shelf.

“It confirms to me that sometimes things you dream about do come true,” she told University of Utah News.

Nadkarni  has been an activist of sorts for bringing out Barbies in non-traditional occupations, starting with her own Treetop Barbies, to playing the role of advisor for a line of the signature dolls as explorers, scientists, and conservationists,  jobs where women are historically underrepresented.

Fifteen years ago, the University of Utah forest ecologist wanted girls to have a Barbie doll that represented a career like hers, or at least one that wore rubber boots and carried a climbing rope and helmet, a press release from U Utah said.

Over the years Nadkarni made her own dolls, collecting Barbies from thrift stories and clothing them and equipping them the way she herself dressed to examine the canopies about which her research has charted new courses. She dressed her  “Treetop Barbies” with handmade accessories, bought little helmets from eBay, and fashioned the ropes and boots, because existing accoutrements for the doll did not have those items. Nadkarni included a booklet on canopy plants to accompany the doll and sold them, at cost, herself.

Mattel did not much care for her creations in 2000, and even asked her to stop producing them, according to a National Public Radio report. She fought back.

“In 2019, adventurous Barbies who have exciting scientific professions are on Mattel’s radar, as they have figured that there is a market for them.” Nadkarni is quoted saying in the press release. “That shows amazing progress of a corporation, and of society.”

Described as a “passionate science communicator” Nadkarni teaches scientists how to engage with their community in ways that build bridges between those community groups and academic researchers. Other efforts have included organizing a fashion show at an ecology conference and bringing the soft imagery of nature into the starkness of solitary confinement (one of Time magazine’s 25 Best Inventions of 2014).

Last year, the National Geographic Society, with whom Nadkarni has a 25-year relationship, reached out to her about a licensing agreement between Mattel and National Geographic to create a line of National Geographic Barbie dolls, according to the press release.

Nadkarni served on a five-member advisory board, consulting on the creation of the dolls to provide authenticity. Her co-panelists included National Geographic editor-in-chief Susan Goldberg, marine biologist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Sylvia Earle, Harvard University astrophysics graduate student Munazza Alam and primatologist and conservationist Catherine Workman.

“I had to think about whether these dolls would inspire young girls to become whomever they want to or whether the dolls would represent a ‘perfect image’ of scientists,” Nadkarni National is quoted saying in the press release. She helped National Geographic and Barbie develop a product line that consists of career dolls and play-sets including Wildlife Conservationist, Astrophysicist, Polar Marine Biologist, Wildlife Photojournalist and Entomologist.

Nadkarni graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree from Brown University, Rhode Island, and did her Ph.D. from University of Washington.

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