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2020 Research Scholar

Delaney Mosier

Delaney Mosier receives top College of Science award.

Delaney Mosier, a graduating senior in mathematics, has been awarded the 2020 College of Science Research Scholar Award for her cutting-edge work in the area of sea ice concentration, using partial differential equation models.

“I am humbled to receive this award,” said Delaney. “The College of Science is teeming with groundbreaking research, so it’s an overwhelming honor to be considered one of the top researchers in the College. I’m proud to be a representative of the amazing research going on in the field of mathematics.”

Delaney is also proud to receive the award as a woman. “I strive to be a positive role model for girls and women in STEM. I hope that by earning this award, I can inspire other women to consider working on mathematics research.”

In his letter of support for Delaney’s nomination, Distinguished Professor Ken Golden, who has served as her supervisor and mentor, discussed her research abilities, natural leadership skills, and mathematical prowess, indicating that Delaney is one of the most talented and advanced students he has seen in his 30+ years of mentoring.

Super Student

The College of Science Research Scholar Award, established in 2004, honors the College’s most outstanding senior undergraduate researcher. The Research Scholar must be a graduating undergraduate major of the College of Science, achieve excellence in science research, have definite plans to attend graduate school in a science/math field, and be dedicated to a career in science/math research.

Studying the Behavior of Sea Ice

Delaney studies patterns in the behavior of sea ice in polar regions. She’s interested in how physical processes affect these patterns on a short-term basis and how climate change can affect them in the long-term.

The primary goal of her research with Dr. Golden is to understand better how and why sea ice is changing over time. Considered relatively low order, their model allows them to study intimately the details of the sea ice pack, which can provide insights that might not yet be apparent to the climate science community. Her work tries to answer one of the most important research questions of the modern age: Why is polar sea ice melting so rapidly and will it ever recover?

She has always been passionate about the environment and finds the project exciting because it incorporates mathematics along with studying climate. “My project is very dynamic,” she noted. “Each time I meet with Dr. Golden, we discuss something new to incorporate into our model or seek a new way to understand it. It’s thrilling to be a part of such unique and innovative work.”

Utah Strong

She became seriously interested in math because of her 7th grade algebra teacher. “Mrs. Hein fostered an exploratory environment—I collaborated with my peers and was often challenged to explore the world of mathematics for myself,” she said. “I couldn’t get enough of it. To this day, math remains the one activity that I can completely lose myself in. Math challenges my mind in exhilarating and motivating ways.”

Mentors at the U

Delaney credits Dr. Golden with helping her pursue a variety of opportunities that have furthered her career as a mathematician. She also has praise for Dr. Courtenay Strong, associate professor of atmospheric sciences, and Dr. Jingyi Zhu, associate professor of mathematics, who have served as mentors and helped guide her research.

“My friend and roommate, Katelyn Queen, has been a wonderful mentor and inspiration to me throughout my journey,” said Delaney. “She is always willing to give me advice and support me in my endeavors. I have watched her excel in her first year of graduate school, and that has inspired me in moving forward.” She also thanks fellow students and her parents for their love and support. “My parents are simply the best,” said Delaney.

Her favorite teacher at the U is Dr. Karl Schwede, professor of mathematics. “I had Dr. Schwede for several classes and learned so much,” she said. “He has high standards for his students, which motivated me and helped me to retain the material. He is also supportive and helpful.”

When she isn’t studying or doing research, she loves to dance and listen to music. She was a competitive Irish dancer from ages 11 – 17. She is also an avid reader, especially during the summer.

The Future

Goodbye Salt Lake City

Delaney will begin her Ph.D. studies in applied mathematics this fall. She hasn’t yet decided if she will work in industry, continue with climate research, or become a professor. “Whatever I decide to do, my goal is to use mathematics to have an impact on the world,” she said.

 

by Michele Swaner

 

 

Science Podcasts

Science Podcasts


Hear directly from College of Science leadership and researchers.

>> Disturbance And Recovery

>> The Last Frontiers of the Forest

Courtship Condos

Dean Castillo

Playing to the ethic of pursuing pure science, new faculty member Dean Castillo is driven by research questions not necessarily the research organism. While working on his bachelor’s and even before that while growing up in rural northern California, he worked with “tons of different organisms,” he says, including fungi. So it wasn’t difficult for him as a geneticist to move from his earlier subjects such as tomatoes and nematodes at Indiana University, where he earned his PhD, to fruit flies (Drosophilia) during his postdoc at Cornell and now at the University of Utah.

The question for Castillo was the same: how do natural and sexual selection shape mating interactions and behaviors, species interactions, and ultimately speciation?

The focus of Castillo, a recent faculty arrival at the School of Biological Sciences, remains evolutionary interactions between organisms, whether in “fruit” or the flies that feed on the yeast of that fruit. Genes determine behavior, and in the case of the fruit fly the female can mate with more than one male and store different sperm in different organ “storage areas” before determining which sperm will be used. How does that anatomically happen and what genes are motivating the female to determine which sperm is used?

Drosophilia - Fruit Flies

“Why does one female mate but another doesn’t?” he further asks. Once his lab determines how and where sperm from two different males is being stored in one female they will pursue other areas of inquiry: finding the genes that control female choice in the brain and, instead of pollen competition from his tomato days, it’s now sperm competition.

The equipment Castillo uses for his research includes one centimeter-high glass “condos” for the tiny flies with removable “gates.” From cotton-topped vials where the flies live on a bed of molasses and yeast, the researcher inserts a female in one side of a bifurcated chamber and a male in the other. Once the researcher lifts the gate between the sides, they can observe the eternal mating behavior of the two sexes on the micro level.

Behavior is only part of the Castillo lab’s integrative approach which combines these condo experiments with population and molecular genetics to understand the genetic basis of sexual behaviors. The approach is also designed to explore the reduction or cessation of reproduction between members of different species. (Think of crossing a horse and a donkey to produce a mule, which is sterile). Comparative genomics can help track this “reproductive isolation,” as it is termed, across the tree of life.

Drosophilia - Fruit Flies

“By studying the mechanistic and genetic links between sexual selection and reproductive isolation we can determine the influence of these forces on generating biodiversity,” says Castillo, sitting in the adjacent office to his lab on the fourth floor of the Aline W. Skaggs biology building. The almost feral view out his windows eastward to the Wasatch is a reminder of one of the big attractions to taking a position at the University of Utah: its stunning setting and, perhaps more importantly, its accessibility to wild nature. In fact, the flies that Castillo studies are easily found in the area, including in American Fork Canyon and Zions National Park. His wife Deidra, who with Dean also earned her PhD from Indiana University at Bloomington, begins her research soon in the Vickers lab one floor down. It turns out that there is overlap between her research in plant-insect interactions and Vickers’ research in moth olfaction and neuroethology.

Managing courtship condos to get at basic biology questions like how genes control behavior can seem random, even mercurial. This is especially true when compared to the careful planning required to procure one’s own family when both parents are academics. (The Castillos have three children, including a one-year-old.) It turns out that their first child was born during qualifying exams. Later, number two entered the scene while they were both defending their theses, the third during their postdocs prior to their move to Utah.

 

Dean Castillo with a few thousand research subjects.

For the time being, the five Castillos will be staying put except, perhaps, for combining science with mountain and high-desert camping trips looking for fruit flies.

by David Pace

 

Discover 2019

Discover Magazine 2019


Explore the SRI

Deep dive into the new Science Research Initiative.

Read More
Dean’s Message

Dear Alumni, Friends, & Colleagues.

Read More
College Rankings

U.S. News & World Report University Rankings.

Read More
Running with Scissors

In gene-targeting, CRISPR makes a really good pair of "scissors".

Read More
Electrochemistry

Henry S. White - A positive force in Electrochemistry.

Read More
Commutative Algebra

Can commutative algebra help us solve real-world problems?

Read More
Alumni Panel

Distinguished science alumni share their experiences.

Read More
McKay Hyde, BS’97

Equities Engineering for the New York office of Goldman Sachs.

Read More
Crimson Legacy

Learn about planned giving opportunities.

Read More
Engaging STEM Students

How can we make STEM education more inclusive and effective?

Read More
A.A.U. Membership

Utah has joined the prestigious Association of American Universities.

Read More
Research Funding

Research funding passes $540 million for 2019.

Read More
Winter 2019

Crimson Laureate Society updates from December 2019.

Read More

 

Discover Magazine


Discover Magazine is the Research Report for the College of Science at the University of Utah.

This issue explores the Science Research Initiative, CRISPR gene editing, electrochemistry, commutative algebra, physics education research, the Association of American Universities, and the US News College Rankings.

If you would like to recieve a copy of Notebook or Discover Magazine please email office@science.utah.edu.

 

 

College Rankings

College Rankings


U.S. News & World Report has released their 2019-2020 National University Rankings. The University of Utah is now ranked No. 1 in Utah, No. 104 nationally, and No. 44 nationally among public universities.

The College of Science fared even better. National rankings for science departments at public universities put Biology at No. 27, Chemistry at No. 18, Mathematics at No. 16 and Physics & Astronomy at No. 37. An aggregate of these rankings puts the College of Science at No. 46 nationally and No. 27 nationally among public universities.

There are many factors used to determine a school’s final ranking in the U.S. News & World Report but one factor that is not considered is cost. When cost is factored, there are few universities that challenge the University of Utah.

U.S. News & World Report does not specifically rank Science Colleges. The college rankings published here are an aggregate of their national department rankings.

 - First Published in Discover Magazine, Fall 2019

 

 

Running with Scissors

Jamie Gagnon

One could argue that the age of genomes is divided between before CRISPR-Cas9 and after CRISPR-Cas9 (commonly referred to as just “CRISPR”). As a Harvard post-doc studying the genes involved in embryo development, James (Jamie) Gagnon remembers in 2012 that “pivotal moment” when these “really nice pair of scissors now easy to make” came on the scene.

“Before CRISPR,” says Gagnon whose interest early on had been more in engineering than biology, “we were all using the earlier generation of genome editing tools. Even so, we were able to determine that after making a mutation in a cell, when it divided, the change that had been made was inherited.”

The new “scissors” rapidly scaled up genome editing, allowing researchers to more easily alter DNA sequences and modify gene function. At the time CRISPR was inspiring others to move from the research model of smaller organisms like the c. elegans, a transparent worm made up of approximately 1,000 cells, to much larger ones like zebrafish. “The power of genetics,” Gagnon says, “is that zebrafish are now genetically accessible model of all vertebrates, including humans which share 70 percent of genes with fish.”

Zebrafish Research subjects

The impulse for Gagnon’s current work in vertebrate lineage and cell fate choice happened in Northern Maine, during a winter-mountaineering trip with his friend and fellow researcher Aaron McKenna whom he met while they were undergraduates at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. There in the wilds, not far from Vermont where Gagnon grew up, ensued an extended conversation between the two which started to form a deeply complex but exciting research question.

“If we want to study how embryos grow, we have to do it in a living animal,” Gagnon remembers acknowledging to McKenna. “We knew we needed to do it [research] in live animals, complete and whole. I couldn’t shut up about it for several days,” he says, smiling. “Everyone was mutating genes.” It seems that at the time, and perhaps still to this day, ‘Let’s break a gene and see if you’re right about what it does’, was pro forma.

Zebrafish Scale

Instead, the developmental biologist (Gagnon) and the computational researcher (McKenna) decided to pick up where others had ended (and published), using technology in a creative way to mark cells with a genetic barcode that could later be used to trace the lineage of cells. The two were suddenly using data sets of CRISPR-scissor mutations to figure out how cells actually developed in zebrafish.

Still, the prevailing question for Gagnon the researcher is how does biology build an animal with millions of cells, all sharing information and all shape-shifting at the same time? And how does science then best go about studying that?

How does science turn chaos and cacophony into a symphony that is the marvel of a living organism?

A symphony orchestra isn’t a bad metaphor for the edge of science that Gagnon and his lab and colleagues find themselves standing at. (It helps, perhaps, that his wife Nikki, a trained studio artist, works at the Utah Symphony | Utah Opera.) “For thirty years,” says Gagnon, people have been deciphering the genome code … one of the worst computer codes ever written.” Just how bad is bad? Imagine three billion letters in one long line with no punctuation or formatting.

The Gagnon Lab

Perhaps it’s the engineer in him, but to get at that unwieldy code, he sees his task as finding additional tools to regulate CRISPR activity. These tools include doing base-editing and using self-targeting guide RNAs to facilitate cells themselves making a record of what they’re doing, what they’re listening to, as it were, as they play their own “score” of development. “We want to turn the single, really good sharp knife of CRISPR,” he explains “into a Swiss Army knife” to figure out the score of an organism’s symphonic work.

The micro-scissors of CRISPR that appear to have issued a sea change in genomic studies, he hopes, can be used to “force cells to make notes along the way” of their own developmental journey. “Every time the oboe plays,” he says, returning to the metaphor, “we want the player [the cell] to make a record and journal entry on it.”

Illustration by The Gagnon Lab

“In early embryos, there are multiple languages or instruments being used by a finite number of cells to communicate with other cells and to build an animal,” he continues. To which language/instrument does a cell “listen” to, and what choices (expression) does it make as a result?

In a sense Jamie Gagnon is no longer just trying to “decode” the genome, but to use CRISPR to make a version, readable to humans, of what cells are doing in real time and how. In short he’s looking for the creation of a cell-generated Ninth Symphony, a complex but coordinated record of how development occurred that a Beethoven would be proud to conduct.

It may be dangerous to run with scissors, something parents routinely warn their children of, but it turns out that a really good pair of them can do more than the obvious: they can inspire other technologies that promise to bend the arc of science towards even greater aspirations.

 

by David Pace

- First Published in OurDNA Magazine, Fall 2019

Electrochemistry

Henry S. White - A Positive Force in Electrochemistry

 

Henry S. White

From energy storage and generation to nanoscale 3D battery architectures to the transport of drugs through human skin, Henry White’s research is pioneering and highly imaginative within the field of electrochemistry. His work on nanoscale electrochemistry was groundbreaking and has developed into a significant field of research with various applications. Professor of Chemistry Shelley Minteer commented that White “greatly enjoys complex problems and is the electrochemist to go to when you have complex mass transport phenomena to understand.”

There’s an obvious reason why Henry White is considered one of the most influential and innovative electrochemists of his generation: he wears his passion and thoroughness for research on his sleeve. White maintained a strong research group funded by the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Defense while serving for six years as Chair of the Department of Chemistry, then five years as Dean of the College of Science. His administrative service was a commitment back to an institution that allows him to do what he loves most: teaching and research.

Henry S. White

Now that he can once again devote all of his time to research and teaching, White is thrilled to be immersed in the frontiers of electrochemistry—asking relevant and innovative questions for our generation’s complex problems. As the Widtsoe Presidential Chair, he continues to train postdoctoral fellows, undergraduates, and graduate students in electrochemistry. The Widtsoe Chair specifically is valuable in providing funding for students to do high risk and truly innovative research that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.

“There are a lot of great questions” in the field of electrochemistry says White. Research isn’t just about solving a problem, it’s about learning how to ask interesting and original questions—something White finds a lot of joy in doing.

“Electrochemistry is a fascinating area of science, and a very diverse area, comprising many fundamental research topics in chemistry, materials science, physics, and engineering. It is also extremely relevant in providing potential solutions to many problems that society faces, especially in providing means for developing sustainable energy sources. I’ve been very fortunate during my career to have had the necessary funding and resources to work on very basic science questions in this area. And I’ve been even more fortunate to be able to work with incredibly talented students and postdocs at the University of Utah, many who have continued to work on electrochemical problems in both industry and academics.”

Dr. Hang Ren, a former postdoc of White’s who is now an Assistant Professor at Miami University in Ohio, focused on electrical measurements on individual DNA molecules trapped inside a protein nanopore while training with White. They were able to trap a single DNA molecule for hours, and watch its motional dynamics, and monitor chemical reactions via the change in electrical current through the protein.

In a second research project, they used platinum electrodes with radii as small as 5 nanometers to measure the nucleation rates of bubbles. They were able to generate a single nanobubble at the electrode surface, measure the nucleation rate, and infer the geometry of the smallest stable bubble that contained as few as 25 molecules. “This is a fundamentally important problem in the field of electrocatalysis, where bubbles are often formed and disrupt the catalytic processes on the electrode,” says Professor Ren.

Dr. Rui Gao, Dr Henry S. White, & Dr Koushik Barman.

White trains his students and postdocs on how to be a researcher, to ask innovative questions, and to be relentlessly rigorous in their approach. As he works with undergraduate and graduate students as well as postdocs, his methods are significantly influencing the next generation of scientists to continue a legacy of research excellence. After training with White for years, Professor Ren affirms that “Henry’s research approach is very  unique. In addition to solving scientific problems  elegantly, he is especially great at asking fundamental scientific questions. He is also highly innovative and very good at exploring new directions in electrochemistry. I was greatly influenced by my postdoc training with him.”

Henry White’s research is often cited by other researchers and is foundational in the fields of electrochemistry and analytical chemistry. “Henry has an uncommon disposition for innovation in undertaking both experimental and theoretical challenges in his research,” says Joel Harris, Distinguished Professor of Chemistry. White’s research has been recognized in major awards from the Society of Electroanalytical Chemistry, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the ACS Division of Analytical Chemistry, and the Electrochemical Society. He is also a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Chemical Society, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

 - by Anne Marie Vivienne
  First Published in Discover Magazine, Fall 2019

 

Commutative Algebra

Can commutative algebra solve real-world problems?

Srikanth Iyengar

“When we first study advanced math, we learn to solve linear and quadratic equations, generally a single equation and in one variable,” said Srikanth Iyengar, Professor of Mathematics at the U. “But most real-world problems aren’t quite so easy—they often involve multiple equations in multiple variables.”

Finding explicit solutions to such equations is generally not feasible nor useful—it’s much more helpful to look for overall structure in the collection of all possible solutions. These solution sets are called algebraic varieties. The word algebraic indicates their origin is from polynomial equations, as opposed to equations involving things like trigonometric and exponential functions. Over the centuries, mathematicians have developed various tools to study these objects. One of them is to study functions on the space of solutions, and algebra is a good way to begin. These functions form a mathematical structure called a commutative ring. Commutative algebra is the study of commutative rings and modules, or algebraic structures over such rings.

Iyengar’s research focuses on understanding these structures, which have links to different areas of mathematics, particularly topology and representation theory.

Iyengar joined the Mathematics Department in 2014. He grew up in Hyderabad, India, and received a master’s degree and Ph.D. from Purdue University. Before joining the U, he taught at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The foundation of commutative algebra lies in the work of 20th century German mathematician David Hilbert, whose work on invariant theory was motivated by questions in physics.

Srikanth Iyengar, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Utah

As a subject on its own, commutative algebra began under the name “ideal theory” with the work of mathematician Richard Dedekind, a giant of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In turn, Dedekind’s work relied on the earlier work of Ernst Kummer and Leopold Kronecker. The mathematician responsible for the modern study of commutative algebra was Wolfgang Krull, who introduced concepts that are now central to the study of the subject, as well as Oscar Zariski, who made commutative algebra a foundation for the study of algebraic varieties.

“One of the things I enjoy about my research is how commutative algebra has so many connections to other things,” said Iyengar. “It makes for rich and lively research. Commutative algebra is continually reinvigorated by problems and perspectives from other fields.” Funding for Iyengar’s research is from the National Science Foundation. The Humboldt Foundation and the Simons Foundation have also provided support.

Commutative rings arise in diverse contexts in mathematics, physics, and computer science, among other fields. Within mathematics, besides functions on algebraic varieties, examples of commutative rings include rings of algebraic integers—the stuff of number theory. Commutative rings also arise, in myriad ways, in the study of symmetries of objects—algebraic topology, graph theory, and combinatorics, among others. One of the areas of physics where commutative algebra is useful is with string theory.

In recent years, ideas and  techniques from commutative algebra have begun to play an increasingly prominent role in coding theory, in reconstructions, and biology with neural networks.  While not everything Iyengar does day-to-day (or perhaps even in the span of a few years) has a direct impact in the field, mathematicians have a way of impacting other areas far from their original source, often decades later. There are many striking examples of this phenomenon. The “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” is well known. The phrase is part of a title of an article published in 1960 by Eugene Wigner, a Hungarian-American mathematician and theoretical physicist.

“I work by thinking about a piece of mathematics—perhaps it’s a research paper or a problem I run into somewhere in a textbook or a talk,” said Iyengar. “This sometimes leads to interesting research projects; at other times, it ends in a dead end. My perspective on research is that it’s more like a garden (or many interconnected gardens) waiting to be explored, rather than peaks to be climbed. Sure, there are landmarks but there’s rarely a point when I can say, Well, this is it—there’s nothing more to be achieved.’’

 

 - by Michele Swaner
  First Published in Discover Magazine, Fall 2019

 

A.A.U. Membership

 

UNIVERSITY OF UTAH INVITED TO JOIN THE ASSOCIATION OF AMERICAN UNIVERSITIES.

 
The University of Utah is one of the newest members of the prestigious Association of American Universities, which for more than 100 years has recognized the most outstanding academic institutions in the nation.

 

"It is difficult to overstate the importance of AAU Membership. This elevates the U to an exceptional category of peer institutions."
- Dean Peter Trapa

 

Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities (AAU), announced Wednesday that University of Utah President Ruth V. Watkins has accepted an invitation to join the association, along with the University of California, Santa Cruz and Dartmouth College. The three new members bring the number of AAU institutions to 65.

AAU invitations are infrequent; this year’s invitations are the first since 2012.

 

 

“AAU’s membership is limited to institutions at the forefront of scientific inquiry and educational excellence,” said Coleman. “These world-class institutions are a welcome addition, and we look forward to working with them as we continue to shape policy for higher education, science, and innovation.” - Mary Sue Coleman

 

About the AAU
The AAU formed in 1900 to promote and raise standards for university research and education. Today its mission is to “provide a forum for the development and implementation of institutional and national policies promoting strong programs of academic research and scholarship and undergraduate, graduate and professional education.”

A current list of member institutions can be found here. The membership criteria are based on a university’s research funding (the U reached a milestone of $547 million in research funding in FY2019); the proportion of faculty elected to the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine; the impact of research and scholarship; and student outcomes. The U has 21 National Academies members, with some elected to more than one academy.

An AAU committee periodically reviews universities and recommends them to the full association for membership, where a three-fourths vote is required to confirm the invitation.

Leaders of AAU member universities meet to discuss common challenges and future directions in higher education. The U’s leaders will now join those meetings, which include the leaders of all the top 10 and 56 of the top 100 universities in the United States.

 

“We already knew that the U was one of the jewels of Utah and of the Intermountain West. This invitation shows that we are one of the jewels of the entire nation.” - H. David Burton

 

U on the rise
In FY2019 the U celebrated a historic high of $547 million in sponsored project funding, covering a wide range of research activities. These prestigious awards from organizations such as the U.S. Department of Energy, National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation are supporting work in geothermal energy, cross-cutting, interdisciplinary approaches to research that challenge existing paradigms and effects of cannabinoids on pain management.

They also are funding educational research programs with significant community engagement, such as the U’s STEM Ambassador Program and the Genetic Science Learning Center’s participation in the All of Us Research Program.

“AAU is a confirmation of the quality and caliber of our faculty and the innovative work they are doing to advance knowledge and address grand societal challenges. Our students and our community will be the ultimate beneficiaries of these endeavors. " - President Ruth Watkins

 

On Nov. 4, 2019, the U announced a $150 million gift, the largest single-project donation in its history, to establish the Huntsman Mental Health Institute. These gifts and awards are in addition to the ongoing support of the U from the Utah State Legislature.

This fall the university welcomed its most academically prepared class of first-year students. The freshman cohort includes 4,249 students boasting an impressive 3.66 average high school GPA and an average ACT composite score of 25.8. The incoming class also brings more diversity to campus with both a 54% increase in international students and more bilingual students than the previous year’s freshman class. Among our freshmen who are U.S. citizens, 30% are students of color.

The U’s focus on student success has led to an increased six-year graduation rate, which now sits at 70%—well above the national average for four-year schools. The rate has jumped 19 percentage points over the past decade, making it one of only two public higher education research institutions to achieve this success.


TreeTop Barbie

When Nalini Nadkarni was a young scientist in the 1980s, she wanted to study the canopy – the part of the trees just above the forest floor to the very top branches.

But back then, people hadn't figured out a good way to easily reach the canopy so it was difficult to conduct research in the tree tops. And Nadkarni's graduate school advisors didn't really think studying the canopy was worthwhile. "That's just Tarzan and Jane stuff. You know that's just glamour stuff," Nadkarni remembers advisors telling her. "There's no science up there that you need to do."

They couldn't have been more wrong. Over the course of her career, Nadkarni's work has illuminated the unique and complex world of the forest canopy.

She helped shape our understanding of canopy soils — a type of soil that forms on the tree trunks and branches. The soil is made up of dead canopy plants and animals that decompose in place. The rich soil supports canopy-dwelling plants, insects and microorganisms that live their entire life cycles in the treetops. If the canopy soil falls to the forest floor, the soil joins the nutrient cycles of the whole forest.

She also discovered that some trees are able to grow above-ground roots from their branches and trunks. Much like below ground roots, the aerial roots can transport water and nutrients into the tree.

During Nadkarni's early work as an ecologist she began to realize something else: There weren't many women conducting canopy research.

Nadkarni was determined to change this. In the early 2000s, she and her lab colleagues came up with the idea of TreeTop Barbie, a canopy researcher version of the popular Barbie doll that could be marketed to young girls.

She pitched the idea to Mattel, the company that makes Barbie. "When I proposed this idea they said, 'We're not interested. That has no meaning to us," says Nadkarni. "We make our own Barbies."

Nadkarni decided to make them herself anyway. She thrifted old Barbies; commissioned a tailor to make the clothes for TreeTop Barbie; and she created a TreeTop Barbie field guide to canopy plants. Nadkarni sold the dolls at cost and brought TreeTop Barbie to conferences and lectures.

Her efforts landed her in the pages of The New York Times, and word eventually got back to Mattel. The owners of Barbie wanted her to shut down TreeTop Barbie due to brand infringement.

Nadkarni pushed back.

"Well you know, I know a number of journalists who would be really interested in knowing that Mattel is trying to shut down a small, brown woman who's trying to inspire young girls to go into science," she recalls telling Mattel.

Mattel relented. The company allowed her to continue her small-scale operation. By Nadkarni's count, she sold about 400 dolls over the years.

Then in 2018, more than a decade after Nadkarni started TreeTop Barbie, she got an unbelievable phone call. National Geographic had partnered with Mattel to make a series of Barbies focused on exploration and science. And they wanted Nadkarni to be an advisor.

"I thought, this is incredible. This is like full circle coming around. This is a dream come true," says Nadkarni.

For its part, Mattel is "thrilled to partner with National Geographic and Nalini," a spokesperson told NPR.

Nadkarni knows that everyone might not approve of her working with Barbie. Barbie's role in creating an unrealistic standard of beauty for young women has been debated. Nadkarni has also wrestled with how she feels about it.

"My sense is yes she's a plastic doll. Yes she's configured in all the ways that we should not be thinking of how women should be shaped," says Nadkarni. "But the fact that now there are these explorer Barbies that are being role models for little girls so that they can literally see themselves as a nature photographer, or an astrophysicist, or an entomologist or you know a tree climber... It's never perfect. But I think it's a step forward."

Nadkarni is an Emeritus Professor at The Evergreen State College, and currently is a professor in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Utah.

 

Nalini Nadkarni's story has appeared in The Washington Post, Time Magazine, Taiwan News, News India Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, National Geographic, The Guardian, Science Friday, San Francisco Chronicle, India Today, India Times, KSL News, Salt Lake Tribune, USA Today, BBC, The Morning Journal, CNN, UNEWS, Star Tribune, National Science Foundation, Continuum, TreeHugger, and many others.

 

 

- First Published by NPR News, Fall 2019