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Nalini Nadkarni Forest Ecologist

Photo: Prisoners growing seedlings

Photograph by Benjamin Drummond /

Photo: Nalini Nadkarni
Photograph by Benjamin Drummond

Nalini Nadkarni has been called “the queen of forest canopy research,” a field that relates directly to three of the most pressing environmental issues of our time: the maintenance of biodiversity, the stability of world climate, and the sustainability of forests.

For three decades, she has climbed trees on four continents, using mountain-climbing techniques, construction cranes, walkways, and hot air balloons to explore the world of animals and plants that live in the treetops. In 1994 she realized that there was no central database for storing and analyzing the research she was gathering, so she invented one. This state-of-the-art repository, called the Big Canopy Database, is credited with speeding cross-disciplinary collaboration just as a common database revolutionized the mapping of the human genome.

Nadkarni, the Director of the Center for Science and Math Education at The University of Utah, is known for using nontraditional pathways to raise awareness of nature’s importance, working with artists, dancers, musicians, and even loggers. Her work has been featured in Glamour, National Geographic, on TV, and in a giant-screen film, as well as in traditional science publications.

In a project funded by the Washington State Department of Corrections, Nadkarni engaged scientists and prisoners in collaboration to carry out research projects in conservation and restoration biology. Inmates have raised endangered frogs, prairie plants, and butterflies, which are then released from captivity to the wild, giving prisoners rare access to nature, as well as a sense of accomplishment and connection to doing something good. In recognition of this work and more, she was a recipient of the National Science Board’s “Public Service Award” in 2010, which honors an individual who has made substantial contributions in increasing public understanding of science in the United States.

Presentation Topics

Between Earth and Sky: Our Intimate Connection With Trees
Drawing from her 2008 book of the same name, Nadkarni presents a rich tapestry of personal stories celebrating profound connections we have with trees: the dazzling array of goods and services they provide, their role in commerce and medicine, and the powerful lessons they hold for us.

The Power of Diversity: In the Rain Forest and in the Workplace
Explore biodiversity at work in the forest and through cleverly drawn parallels with everyday life. This presentation emphasizes the strength we gain when diverse forces come together and enhance the value of one another.

Rain Forest Research From Roots to Treetops
Find out how and why ecologists study the complex world of tropical rain forests.

Branching Out
This project, funded by the National Geographic Conservation Trust, brings together scientists, artists, Native Americans, and blind people to document, celebrate, and conserve nature in the Pacific Northwest and Costa Rica.

Arboreal Images in Art, Myth, Religion, and Poetry
In this lyrical presentation Nadkarni explores the use of trees as an integrative cross-cultural theme in literature, film, medicine, religion, mathematics, and popular culture.

Learn More About Nalini:

Big Canopy Database

Tree Canopy Researcher Honored for Public Service

Sustainable Prisons Featured on Anderson Cooper 360 on CNN

Huffington Post: Sustainability In Prisons Project Helps Inmates Save Endangered Butterflies

National Science Foundation: Inmates Conduct Ecological Research on Slow-growing Mosses

  • Photo: TED Logo
    Nalini Nadkarni’s TED Talk

    A unique ecosystem of plants, birds, and monkeys thrives in the treetops of the rainforest. Nalini Nadkarni explores these canopy worlds—and shares her findings with the world below through dance, art and bold partnerships.

  • Picture of Nalini Nadkarni
    Video: TED: Nalini Nadkarni: Life Science in Prison

    Nalini Nadkarni challenges our perspective on trees and prisons—she says both can be more dynamic than we think.

  • Picture of Nalini Nadkarni in a Tree
    Video: Climbing a Tree

    Climbing a tree is a magical experience, even for a world-renowned forest ecologist.

  • Photo: Prisoners tend a garden
    Sustainable Prisons Project

    In partnership with the Washington State Department of Corrections, Nadkarni is introducing sustainable practices, and training offenders to conduct ecological research and conserve biodiversity through special projects.

    Photograph by Benjamin Drummond /

  • Inmates tending seedlings
    Sustainable Prisons Project on PBS NewsHour

    Inmates in Washington State are working on environmental projects to conserve water and help protect endangered spotted frogs. The project benefits inmates, the environment, and the prisons’ budgets.

National Geographic Speakers

Speaker name
Sam Abell
   Photographer Photo of Sam Abell
William Albert Allard
   Photographer, Writer Photo of William Albert Allard
Casey Anderson
   Naturalist, TV Host Photo of Casey Anderson
Peter Athans
   Mountaineer, Filmmaker Photo of Peter Athans
Robert Ballard
   Underwater Explorer Photo of Robert Ballard
Brady Barr
   Reptile Expert, TV Host Photo of Brady Barr
Angela Fisher and Carol Beckwith
   Photographers, Writers Photo of Angela Fisher and Carol Beckwith
Keith Bellows
   Editor in Chief, National Geographic Traveler Photo of Keith Bellows
Melina Bellows
   Publisher, Editor Photo of Melina Bellows
Don Belt
   Former Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent, National Geographic Photo of Don Belt
Lee Berger
   Paleoanthropologist Photo of Lee Berger
Joel K. Bourne Jr.
   Contributing Writer Photo of Joel K. Bourne Jr.
Kobie Boykins
   NASA Engineer Photo of Kobie Boykins
John Bredar
   Senior Executive Producer, National Geographic Specials Photo of John Bredar
Kenny Broad
   Cave Diver, Environmental Anthropologist Photo of Kenny Broad
Dan Buettner
   Author, Explorer Photo of Dan Buettner
Andy B. Casagrande
   National Geographic Cameraman Photo of Andy B. Casagrande
Barry Clifford
   Underwater Explorer Photo of Barry Clifford
Jodi Cobb
   Photographer Photo of Jodi Cobb
Michael Davie
   Filmmaker Photo of Michael Davie
Wade Davis
   Cultural Anthropologist, Author Photo of Wade Davis
Dennis Dimick
   Executive Editor, National Geographic Magazine Photo of Dennis Dimick
David Doubilet
   Underwater Photographer Photo of David Doubilet
Sylvia Earle
   Marine Biologist Photo of Sylvia Earle
Frans Lanting and Chris Eckstrom
   Photographers, Filmmakers, Writers Photo of Frans Lanting and Chris Eckstrom
Andrew Evans
   Travel Journalist Photo of Andrew Evans
Michael Fay
   Conservationist, Biologist Photo of Michael Fay
Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher
   Photographers, Writers Photo of Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher
John Francis
   Planetwalker, Conservationist Photo of John Francis
Jerry Glover
   Agricultural Ecologist Photo of Jerry Glover
Annie Griffiths
   Photographer Photo of Annie Griffiths
Kevin Hand
   Planetary Scientist and Astrobiologist Photo of Kevin Hand
Zahi Hawass
   Archaeologist Photo of Zahi Hawass
Fred Hiebert
   Archaeologist Photo of Fred Hiebert
Peter Hillary
   Mountaineer, Author Photo of Peter Hillary
Nizar Ibrahim
   Paleontologist Photo of Nizar Ibrahim
Donald Johanson
   Paleoanthropologist Photo of Donald Johanson
Beverly & Dereck Joubert
   Photographers, Filmmakers, Naturalists Photo of Beverly & Dereck Joubert
Karen Kasmauski
   Photographer Photo of Karen Kasmauski
Mattias Klum
   Photographer, Filmmaker, Conservationist Photo of Mattias Klum
Emory Kristof
   Photographer Photo of Emory Kristof
Tim Laman
   Field Biologist, Wildlife Photojournalist Photo of Tim Laman
Chris Eckstrom and Frans Lanting
   Photographers, Filmmakers, Writers Photo of Chris Eckstrom and Frans Lanting
Albert Yu-Min Lin
   Research Scientist and Engineer Photo of Albert Yu-Min Lin
Greg Marshall
   Biologist, Inventor, Filmmaker Photo of Greg Marshall
Boyd Matson
   Journalist, Adventurer Photo of Boyd Matson
Mireya Mayor
   Primatologist Photo of Mireya Mayor
Steve McCurry
   Photographer Photo of Steve McCurry
Kim McKay
   Environmentalist, Author Photo of Kim McKay
Mark Moffett
   Ecologist, Photographer Photo of Mark Moffett
Nalini Nadkarni
   Forest Ecologist Photo of Nalini Nadkarni
Cathy Newman
   National Geographic Senior Writer, Author Photo of Cathy Newman
Michael "Nick" Nichols
   Photographer, Conservationist Photo of Michael "Nick" Nichols
Paul Nicklen
   Photographer, Biologist Photo of Paul Nicklen
Børge Ousland
   Polar Explorer Photo of Børge Ousland
Bob Poole
   National Geographic Cameraman Photo of Bob Poole
Victoria Pope
   Deputy Editor, National Geographic Magazine Photo of Victoria Pope
Chad Pregracke
   Environmentalist Photo of Chad Pregracke
   Photojournalist and Humanitarian Photo of  Reza
Jim Richardson
   Photographer Photo of Jim Richardson
Enric Sala
   Marine Ecologist Photo of Enric Sala
Joel Sartore
   Photographer, National Geographic Fellow Photo of Joel Sartore
Barton Seaver
   Chef, Conservationist Photo of Barton Seaver
Paul Sereno
   Paleontologist Photo of Paul Sereno
Brian Skerry
   Underwater Photographer Photo of Brian Skerry
Bryan Smith
   Adventure Filmmaker Photo of Bryan Smith
Will Steger
   Polar Explorer Photo of Will Steger
Maria Stenzel
   Photographer Photo of Maria Stenzel
Ed Viesturs
   Mountaineer Photo of Ed Viesturs
Spencer Wells
   Population Geneticist Photo of Spencer Wells
Rory Wilson
   Aquatic Biologist Photo of Rory Wilson
Andrew Zolli
   Futurist Photo of Andrew Zolli

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