When Nalini Nadkarni was a kid, she’d run home from school, climb into one of the eight maple trees in her parents’ backyard and spend an afternoon there with an apple and a book.
That time in the treetops set the tone for the rest of her life: She’s now a forest ecologist at the University of Utah who’s dedicated her career to studying rainforest canopies.
She’s also always looking for new ways to get people interested in science, from fashion made with nature imagery to science lectures at the state prison.
“I’ve tried for years and years to bring the science I do and understand to people outside of academia,” she said.
Her childhood memories made her particularly interested in reaching children. After her own 6-year-old daughter asked for a Barbie, Nadkarni decided to refashion the iconic dolls as a scientist-explorer in rubber boots rather than high heels.
“Lots of girls, and some little boys, love Barbie,” Nadkarni said. “It’s almost aspirational; they want to be Barbie.”
That was about 15 years ago. Nadkarni said Barbie-maker Mattel wasn’t interested in the idea then, so she decided to redo dolls herself, using gear she collected.
She scoured thrift stores and eBay for Barbie dolls and enlisted help from volunteer seamstresses. She called the creation “Treetop Barbie” and began selling them at cost on her website.
Last year, Mattel began working with National Geographic to create a new line of scientist Barbies. Nadkarni has a long-standing relationship with National Geographic, so when the nonprofit reached out for help, she quickly agreed.
Nadkarni joined a team of female scientists advising Mattel as it made the line of dolls that includes a marine biologist, astrophysicist, photojournalist, conservationist and entomologist.
Sales began in the summer. As a thank-you, Mattel sent Nadkarni a one-of-a-kind doll with tree-climbing gear and full dark hair woven with strands of white that made the doll resemble the scientist.
For Nadkarni, the company’s investment in the dolls reflects a broader cultural shift toward recognizing women in science, math and technology that could spark an appreciation for science even among kids who don’t end up entering the field.
It’s not known, though, how career Barbies might affect kids’ aspirations. A 2014 study by Oregon State University found that girls who played with the dolls told researchers they could do fewer jobs than boys — even if they played with a doctor Barbie.
Putting the same doll in a professional outfit probably won’t do much to change perceptions about what women can do, said associate professor Aurora Sherman, who worked on the paper. But it might help to use it as a starting point for conversations about women in science and math.
“Its really going to depend on how that doll is experienced, and what adults are doing to drive home that message,” she said.
Barbies are so popular that the new dolls have the potential to normalize the idea of women in science and engineering, said Kris Macomber, a sociology professor at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Barbie sales have been increasing as they have become available in varied body shapes and careers, but there’s only so much a toy can do to change broader attitudes about what professions chosen by girls as they grow up, she said.
“Barbie does not hold all the power to change culture,” Macomber said. “But it does contribute.”