Dr. Nalini Nadkarni, Tapestry Thinking: WEaving Diverse Communities Through Nature

Dr. Nalini Nadkarni

October 07, 2021
The Great Hall

Reflection  | VideoPhotos

Dr. Nalini Nadkarni is an admired scientist, activist, author, speaker, and professor. Her work has been focused on rainforest ecology and education outreach.

Nadkarni's interest was first drawn to rain forest ecology due to the contradiction offered by its plant life. There was a great abundance and variety of plant life within the rain forest despite its nutrient-poor soil, and her goal was to discover how the plant life was sustained. 

Her studies within the canopy revealed that the epiphytes, which are non-parasitic plants such as orchids and ferns that live on the branches and trunks of other plants, were trapping organic material beneath their root system. This organic material eventually formed a nutrient-rich mat, and trees in the rain forest had developed aerial roots, stemming from their trunks and branches, in order to absorb these nutrients as well. 

Nadkarni and her work in the Costa Rican rain forest were featured in the 1988 PBS series, The Second Voyage of the Mimi, starring a young Ben Affleck. 

She maintains an interest in public outreach, and her work was highlighted on the web page of the National Science Foundation. Her work has included developing moss growing techniques with prisoners, as well as bringing artists, like musician and biologist Duke G. Brady, into the forest canopy to write and perform. 

She is the author of Between Earth and Sky: Our Intimate Connections to Trees and has delivered TED Talks on Conserving the Canopy and Life Science in Prison. 

In November 2019, Mattel introduced a new Barbie doll, based on Nadkarni.

An Emeritus Professor at The Evergreen State College, she currently is a professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Utah.


On October 7, SUU’s APEX event series brought in Dr. Nalini Nadkarni, “queen of canopy research,” to kick off the Grace A. Tanner Lecture Series for Human Values.

This year, Grace A. Tanner celebrates its 40-year anniversary. This special year is called “the year of grace.” The theme chosen for this year is based on a book by Emily Esfani Smith entitled, “The Power of Meaning: finding fulfillment in a world obsessed with happiness.” Grace A. Tanner’s goal this year is to build “cultures of meaning.”

Obert C. Tanner is the founder of the Grace A. Tanner Center and a Utah philosopher. Having named it after his wife, Tanner’s mission was to “Get a search for a better understanding of human values.” Nadkarni tied that into her presentation by explaining that “By connecting people with different values and from different disciplines, with humility, we can move forward towards hope rather than the immobility of despair.”

To make others care about nature and its effects on not only humans, but everything, Nadkarni said, “I needed to link what others value about these ecosystems, values that may have nothing to do with ecological values.”

Dr. Nalini Nadkarni is a rainforest ecologist, science ambassador, creator of the nonprofit International Canopy Network, and was a guest of Bill Nye’s. She declares that she “found joy and refuge in climbing trees” when she was younger which sparked her wanting to be an ecologist and to further understand humans and their relationship with nature.

Nadkarni expressed that there is a “Growing separation from humans and nature.” However, “Exposure to nature, or nature imagery, can speed healing and reduce stress, anxiety, and aggression.”

Trees are made of different types of values besides ecological: recreational, spiritual, aesthetic, and social justice. In the Old Testament alone, Nadkarni counted 328 references to trees and nature, including the tree of life, the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

Leaving the audience with some encouraging words, Nadkarni explained that, “Small actions can be very useful. When lots of people do small things, together we can connect with many others. Small is beautiful and should be encouraged because sometimes small actions can lead to bigger ones.”

To purchase Nadkarni’s book “Between the Earth and Sky: Our Intimate Connection to Trees” visit her website.