On a path of rigorous academia, she eventually realized she wanted to share her love of trees with the wider public. But at the time, there were no outlets for scientific outreach, so "I suppressed that part of me."
Yet as Nadkarni saw the growing toll of deforestation, invasive species, and other forest threats, she knew she had to act. So she started reaching out to the public by giving talks at schools and writing magazine articles. In 2002, she finally got the boost she needed: a year-long fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, which allowed her to combine academics with creative work—in her case, communicating about nature.
Since then, Nadkarni—now at the University of Utah—has been doing just that, including as a grantee for National Geographic. We caught up with the scientist between tree-climbing expeditions to talk about some of her most interesting strategies to get people hooked on nature. (Test your environmental IQ with our quiz.)
For many urban kids, exposure to nature is limited to a tiny city park or water from the tap. Nadkarni realized if she were to talk to them as a professor, she'd get nowhere: "I needed an ambassador, someone of that culture who understands their values."
So in 2009, Nadkarni reached out to California rap singer George "Duke" Brady to sing about science. She invited the singer—who'd previously taken one of her college courses—and a group of urban kids into the treetops of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State.
After climbing down from a tree, Brady improvised this rap song:
Wet and green moss,
I'm at a loss
To describe the beauty.
Falling on my booty,
But held up by strings.
Came up here
To do some things.
The kids enjoyed the song, and Nadkarni felt they'd developed a kinship with the forest. "Because they valued him, they valued the message," she said.
Too often, she added, scientists try to talk to the public by writing an article in a scientific magazine or giving a lecture at a local museum. But the people in those audiences "already get it."
"If you want to go beyond that small percentage of people who are already environmentally and scientifically aware, you have to make your work somehow link with a passion, interest, or profession of someone who isn't interested in science or nature."
Take fashionistas, for instance.
Nadkarni was climbing in the canopy about a decade ago when she "saw the light just playing on leaves [and thought], 'Gosh, that's beautiful. I would like to wear that.'" (See beautiful pictures of tree patterns.)
That germinated into her "botanically correct" camouflage clothing line, for which she takes pictures of trees and prints them onto cloth that's later made into clothes.
Nadkarni shopped the idea around to stores like Eddie Bauer and REI, but to no avail. Then in 2012, Nadkarni met New York City fashion designer Tara Mei Smith, who suggested the canopy clothing be marketed to urban millennials who may not yet have a conduit for appreciating nature.
"Tara has taught me that fashion is not just about spending money; it's about one of the [most] basic human things there is—finding one's own identity," said Nadkarni.
So if a young person buys a treetop blazer that they feel good wearing, it may also make them feel closer to nature. (See National Geographic's pictures of global fashion.)
To date Nadkarni and Smith are still finding ways to fund the clothing line—"we haven't hit the big time yet," Nadkarni said.
But she said the project is an example of "remaining open to values of other audiences."
"If you can understand their values and be open to them, then you have a chance of entering that world and placing your message in a way that's compatible to those values."
The Science Behind Sports
Nadkarni has also applied this principle to sports, since "a lot of people value sports over science."
At the University of Utah, Nadkarni went to the athletics department and said to director Chris Hill, "You've got the glory of sports, but I've got the power of science. Why don't we get together to link these two?"
Hill thought it was a great idea, especially as a way to dispel the stereotype of athletes being "dumb jocks," she said. (Read "NFL Looks to Helmet Technology to Combat Concussions.")
So the team put together an initiative to show the public the science behind sports. They created short videos about sports physics that played on stadium Jumbotrons, invited mathematicians to talk at sports camps, and put up posters around campus showing how football relates to mathematics.
And this year, they're working with the Utah State Office of Education to bring scientists into schools to talk to physical education classes.
"These connections can seem like odd bedfellows," but they often help make people think about science in surprising ways, Nadkarni said.
One of Nadkarni's biggest undertakings is the Sustainability in Prisons Project, a partnership of the Washington State Department of Corrections and Evergreen State College, which helps incarcerated men and women in the U.S. Pacific Northwest get involved in conservation projects and ecological research.
It's a win-win, says Nadkarni: The prisoners, many of whom have been long deprived of intellectual stimulation and exposure to nature, get to contribute to science, which in turn benefits from their work.
Since 2009, inmates have participated in rearing endangered frogs and butterflies, restoring native prairies, cataloging moss species, and beekeeping. Some of the skills may help them get jobs when they're released.
Nadkarni said that many inmates have volunteered to participate because it appeals to their desire to feel like they are contributing members of society.
"When a biology professor walks in with bags of moss and says, 'I want you to solve an ecological problem,' of course they're going to value that. I wasn't sending them a dry piece of literature."
Scientists also inspire and educate inmates with guest lectures and hands-on workshops—activities geared toward making inmates more aware of the outside world.
The project has encouraged more sustainable practices within the prisons, including recycling, composting, and organic gardening. (Get tips on how to live with nature in mind.)
That also means making the prison environment more pleasant. For instance, inmates in so-called supermax facilities get only one hour a day to exercise, often in a dingy concrete room. When Nadkarni wrapped one of these rooms at the Snake River Correctional Institution in Oregon with a picture of trees, violence in that particular unit decreased.
"There isn't a person on Earth who couldn't use a connection with nature," she said.
That includes kids. For instance, when Nadkarni's daughter began asking for a Barbie doll, Nadkarni and her students dreamed up "Treetop Barbie"—a Mattel Barbie doll that they dressed themselves in hand-tailored clothes, modeled after a treetop ecologist's outfit and climbing gear.
The doll comes with a field guide to canopy plants and animals—both Barbie- and person-size—and a personal letter from Barbie about forests and their role in our lives.
"Treetop Barbies" are available through the International Canopy Network, which promotes forest-canopy conservation.
In 2010, Nadkarni was presented with another challenge to reach youth: Environmental scientist Denise Bruesewitz, who studies denitrification—the process in which nitrogen escapes the soil—wanted to communicate the concept to her three-year-old daughter and her day-care classmates.
The two scientists came up with a common denominator that any kid would get: mud. Wet soil is mud, and mud is crucial to denitrification. So they planned a half-day workshop with kids who made mud, learned about mud, and even "sang a mud song."
"It was a wonderful connection between this advanced science and little kids," Nadkarni said. (Also see National Geographic's nature activities for kids.)
A Win for Nature
It can be tough to gauge if and how these projects have affected people's attitudes about science and nature, Nadkarni noted. (See: "Connecting With Nature Boosts Creativity and Health.")
Inmates involved in her program did learn more about biology, according to the results of surveys taken by participants before and after the program. But such hard measures of success are few and far between.
Even so, Nadkarni believes that getting anyone to at least think about the world around them is a win.
"I think a 95-year-old is worth the time," she said, "even if it's just for that moment."