SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – University of Utah Prof. Nalini Nadkarni has long 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. Now, the Indian American forest ecologist has finally got her own from Mattel, the makers of the iconic toy.
Nadkarni 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,” she told UT News, “that sometimes things you dream about do come true.”
Before the doll became a reality, the professor at the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Utah did not sit around waiting for Mattel to come on board. Nadkarni made her own dolls for years, fashioning what she called “Treetop Barbies” from thrift store finds and handmade accessories. Nadkarni started collecting Barbies from various thrift stores and buying little helmets on eBay to put together “Treetop Barbie” outfits. Volunteer tailors put together the outfits. Nadkarni included a booklet on canopy plants to accompany the doll and sold them, at cost, herself.
Mattel, it appears, was not happy. National Public Radio reported in 2000 that the company had even asked her to stop producing them. Nadkarni fought back.
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 Barbie dolls, UT News said. The line would include dolls centered on exploration, science, conservation and research highlighting occupations in which women are underrepresented.
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.
As an advisor, Nadkarni initially contemplated promoting a line with a history of consumerism and stereotypes. “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.”
With Nadkarni’s help, National Geographic and Barbie developed a product line that consists of career dolls and playsets including Wildlife Conservationist, Astrophysicist, Polar Marine Biologist, Wildlife Photojournalist and Entomologist.
“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 said. “That shows amazing progress of a corporation, and of society.”
Nadkarni, who has a B.S. from Brown University and a Ph.D. from the University of Washington, is a passionate science communicator. She teaches scientists how to engage with their community in meaningful ways that build bridges between 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, according to UT News.