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Not My Job: Nalini Nadkarni


In the fall of last year, we reached a milestone - our 1,000th show. It's amazing we ever made it this far.

BILL KURTIS: It feels like it's just been 970 or so.


SAGAL: To mark the occasion, we went back to Salt Lake City, where we did our first-ever show in front of a live audience. And there, we talked to a remarkable woman, a professor of biology at the University of Utah.

KURTIS: Nalini Nadkarni invented the entire field of treetop biology. Peter asked her if people thought she was crazy when she first suggested climbing to the tops of trees.


NALINI NADKARNI: Well, it was like that. You know, scientists are supposed to discover the unknown. And I am a scientist. I mean, I'm really a scientist. I'm a geek. I mean, in high school, I was a member of the Latin Scrabble club.


SAGAL: Well, that's...

NADKARNI: That's how much of a geek I am.

SAGAL: That's geeky even for NPR.

NADKARNI: Yes, it is.


SAGAL: That's pretty geeky.


SAGAL: So you were a nerd. You were studying science - fine. But how did you get interested in the tree canopy?

NADKARNI: So when we ascend into the canopy, we really have access to a completely different world up there. It's a different microclimate. There's more sunlight, more variations in relative humidity and a whole panoply of plants and animals that have adapted to live up there.

SAGAL: And when you were the first scientist to actually go up there, did you find, like, all these unique animals going, damn it, she found us?


NADKARNI: Actually, what I did - what does happen sometimes is that you really make observations of animals that you can't make on the forest floor. For example, sometimes, if you sit up there very quietly, you see this white form coming towards your side. And suddenly, you hear in your ear, hello.

SAGAL: And let me ask you...


SAGAL: Let me ask you...

PETER GROSZ: You're new.

SAGAL: What was your reaction to that?

NADKARNI: I said that I'm already married.

SAGAL: I understand.


SAGAL: Oh, and I met your husband. He is also a biologist. And he studies ants.

NADKARNI: Yes, he does. Actually, we met because I studied the canopy. He was - we were both graduate students. He came to my field site. And he said to me in this just - such a charming, quiet voice. He said, you know, I really want to know if there are ants in the canopy.


NADKARNI: And so I had to teach him how to climb. We fell in love. And when he proposed, he said he would name an ant after me.

SAGAL: Did he?

NADKARNI: He did. It took him seven years. But he did.

SAGAL: What is the ant?

NADKARNI: The ant name is Procryptocerus nalini.



SAGAL: You do have a name - Nalini...


NADKARNI: Yes, yes. I do.

SAGAL: ...That lends itself easily to species.

GROSZ: I wish that he was like, I - you know what? I know there's no ants up there. I just was hitting on you.

SAGAL: Yeah.



GROSZ: I just wanted to climb a tree with you.

SAGAL: That's a very - see, I assume that the only way a treetop canopy scientist and an ant scientist could meet would be a tragic fall. But...


NADKARNI: No, that didn't happen. It was the other way.

SAGAL: He went up. That's great.

NADKARNI: He came up. Yes, that's right.

SAGAL: Is there anything in particular about the ant nalini species that made him...

NADKARNI: Well, he calls it - yes. He calls it an elegant canopy ant. It's slim. It's nimble. And it occurs in the canopy. So...

SAGAL: Oh, that's very nice.

NADKARNI: So I take that as a...

SAGAL: He did well with that.

NADKARNI: ...Compliment. Yes.


SAGAL: All right. I have to ask about treetop Barbie...


SAGAL: ...Which is something that you invented.


SAGAL: So tell me about that.

NADKARNI: Well, you know, I grew up climbing trees, as I said, in suburban Maryland. And my students and I began thinking, how can we inspire young girls to climb trees and to treasure trees the way I do? And we know that little girls - many little girls treasure Barbie for whatever reason.

SAGAL: Sure.


NADKARNI: And so we thought, perhaps, making a treetop Barbie, making a Barbie that has the clothes that I wear in the canopy and in the field, a little helmet, little crossbow, a little booklet that tells her...

GROSZ: Wait. Wait. Who? What?


GROSZ: Crossbow?

NADKARNI: But we have to get the ropes up there somehow.

SAGAL: So you invented a Barbie that was dressed as a treetop scientist.


SAGAL: And what did the Mattel company have to say about this?

NADKARNI: Well, I did call them. I offered them the idea. I thought it would be just fabulous for Mattel to have it sold in Toys R Us and so forth. And they were not interested for some reason.

SAGAL: Right.

NADKARNI: I couldn't understand that.


NADKARNI: So we just decided, well, in our lab, we can make them ourselves. So we bought used Barbies from Goodwill. We had volunteer seamstresses make the little clothing. There were some challenges. Like, the big hair wouldn't fit under the little helmets.

SAGAL: It's a problem.


NADKARNI: And her high-heeled feet - you know, their boots wouldn't stay on.

SAGAL: Yeah.

NADKARNI: And we did try ground support Ken. But that turned out not to be a big seller.

SAGAL: Right.



NADKARNI: My husband hates ground support Ken.


SAGAL: But I was told that Mattel got mad at you.

NADKARNI: Well, they did get mad. They actually said, you know, you can't sell these. You know, you're impinging on our brand. And I said, well, I know a number of journalists who might be interested in knowing that, you know, Mattel is not interested in having a brown woman encourage young girls to go into science and be discoverers.


SAGAL: Did you say that while holding your crossbow?


NADKARNI: But the amazing thing is, just last year, I got a call from National Geographic. And they have partnered with Mattel. And they have now produced five explorer Barbies, which is fabulous.


SAGAL: And is one of them something like your treetop Barbie?

NADKARNI: Well, they didn't make treetop Barbie. I think there wasn't a big enough market for canopy explorers. But they did make a one-of-a-kind Barbie that looks like me.



NADKARNI: And so I have this little Barbie. She looks like me about 30 years ago.

SAGAL: Sure. Wow.


NADKARNI: But I'll take it.


SAGAL: Well, Nalini Nadkarni, we've invited you here to play a game we're calling...

KURTIS: Join us up in the trees for canapes.


SAGAL: Yep. That's what we went with.



SAGAL: You study the tree canopy. We thought we'd ask you about canapes - those treats usually passed around during cocktail hour before dinner. Answer two questions about canapes and you'll win our prize for one of our listeners - the voice of their choice on their voicemail.

Bill, who is Nalini Nadkarni playing for?

KURTIS: Heather Hurley in Washington, D.C.

SAGAL: All right, here's your first question. The origin of the word canape is surprising. What is it? A, it's named after Claude Canape (ph), a French cook so legendarily awful people could only eat one bite of his food...


SAGAL: ...B, it comes from the Greek word for mosquito; or C, the original pronunciation is can ape as in can an ape eat that?



NADKARNI: Was that a B?


NADKARNI: All right, I will say B.

SAGAL: Yes, it is, in fact, B.



SAGAL: And it's a very bizarre origin, so are you ready? Here we go.


SAGAL: The Greek word for mosquito is konopus (ph), which became canape, which became the word for the screen around a couch to keep out mosquitoes. But in French, that became the word for couch. And somebody thought a piece of toast with some spread on it looked like a couch, so canape.




SAGAL: Language is weird.


SAGAL: Here's your next question. Taste in canapes change over time. Which of these was a real appetizer you might have been offered at a swanky party in the 1960s? Is it, A, hotdog nutty fritters...


SAGAL: ...B, prune nuggets supreme; Or C, kidney toasts?



NADKARNI: I'm thinking A.

SAGAL: You're thinking, A, hotdog nutty fritters.

NADKARNI: That sounds like that's wrong.


NADKARNI: I think I'll say C. I really meant to say C.

SAGAL: They misled you. It was A.

NADKARNI: Oh. Where's my crossbow?


SAGAL: But this is OK. You have one more question.

NADKARNI: One more, OK.

SAGAL: If you get this right, you win. Well, what about if you want to throw a big summer party by the pool? Back in the day, again, you might have served which of these delicious hot weather canapes? A, a single cold potato...


SAGAL: ...B, frozen pork beans and ketchup pops...


SAGAL: ...Or C, herring ice cream bites.


NADKARNI: B, I think.

SAGAL: You're going to go with B.

NADKARNI: I'll go with B.

SAGAL: You're right.


NADKARNI: Yes. Hurray.

SAGAL: Simplest thing in the world.


SAGAL: Make pork and beans, pour in ketchup, pour into a popsicle mold, and your friends will never forget it.


SAGAL: Bill, how did Nalini do on our quiz?

KURTIS: Well, no one has enjoyed winning more than Nalini.

GROSZ: (Laughter).

SAGAL: That's true.

KURTIS: And she did win, two out of three.


SAGAL: Congratulations.

NADKARNI: Thank you.


SAGAL: Nalini Nadkarni is an ecologist and professor at the University of Utah and an adviser for Mattel and National Geographic's new line of science Barbies.

Nalini Nadkarni, thank you so much for joining us.


SAGAL: When we come back, a man who was almost vice president reveals a hidden talent, and we talk to a woman who would never hide her genius. We'll be back in a minute with more of WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.