During weekly lab lunch at The Evergreen State College, Nalini Nadkarni and other International Canopy Network (ICAN) researchers were inspired: Why not make a Barbie that's strong, adventurous, loves science and has fun in the forest? They wrote and called Mattel, the Barbie toymaker, but no response. So they made their own TreeTop Barbie. In two years, they've distributed 300 dolls for donations of $50 to $100 (see www.evergreen.edu/ican). A chat with TreeTop Barbie as channeled through Nadkarni:
Q: You're climbing trees tall as 15-story buildings. What's a woman to wear?
A: Something comfortable that lets me move! I have to crouch, swing from one branch to another. It's like I'm doing ballet up there.
Q: Other equipment?
A: I always wear my harness and helmet. Safety is the No. 1 consideration, even more than how my hair looks. I have binoculars and a tiny little write-in-the-rain data and identification book. (She also has field clothes, boots, climbing rope, and doll- and human-sized field guides of Northwest-canopy flora and fauna.)
Q: Some Barbies are smitten with guys. What's your passion? Moss?
A: Me, I'm having this long-term love affair with trees. They're strong, they're supportive, complex, deeply rooted. They're grounded! (ICAN is working on Ground Support Ken.)
Q: Is being a treetop scientist as glamorous as it seems?
A: I get so excited discovering new things up there that I glow. Girls, you know how important that glow is!
Q: Your glowing discoveries?
A: Roots from the trees can grow out of branches. Nobody ever knew that until I climbed into the canopy and discovered it. I'm working with some botanical garden and medical labs to discover new drugs from plants that grow in the treetops. More than 25 percent of all prescription drugs come from plants, so it's likely new medications could come from plants.
Q: Is it attractive to be active?
A: Absolutely. When I'm going up (into the trees), I can see it in those guys' eyes!
Q: Now, let's talk challenges: hair?
A: Hair is a big issue. It's a helmet thing. Yes, I have to tie it back because of the danger of it getting caught. But I have a rubber band and very attractive red bow. My vest has numerous pockets, and one is my hair-care accessories pocket. There's no reason why scientists have to look messy or unattractive.