Dr. Nalini Nadkarni


Qualification - Ph.D


About -

Ph.D., University of Washington, Seattle, College of Forest Resources, 1983

Honorary Ph.D., Brown University, 2014

A Forest Ecologist & a Professor of Biology, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT
“People tend to compartmentalize themselves into IT people, and movie star people, and scientists, but when we share our perspectives about nature, we find a common denominator.”
“I am grateful to trees for providing so many things that all humans need, from oxygen to shade and from medicines to beauty”, says Dr. Nalini Nadkarni who is a forest ecologist by profession. Thanks to her special choice of work, she had been working at very high places, literally. She is world-recognized expert in field of tree canopies in rain forests.


Dr. Nalini Nadkarni is a forest ecologist and a science communicator. She was a faculty member at The Evergreen State College for 20 years, and in 2011, joined the University of Utah. An Emeritus Professor at The Evergreen State College, she currently is a professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Utah.

Dr. Nalini’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 intercepting and retaining nutrients in rain and dust, and from that, creating organic material beneath their root systems. This organic material eventually forms nutrient-rich mats. Some trees in the rain forest develop aerial roots, stemming from their trunks and branches, in order to absorb these nutrients as well. The aerial roots growing into the mats aided the rain forest trees by providing the nourishment that they did not receive from the nutrient poor soil.

Dr. Nalini’s research interests are ecology of tropical and temperate forest canopy plants, community and ecosystem ecology of tropical forests, ecological interactions of primary and human-affected landscapes, and engagement of science to underserved public audiences.

Dr. Nalini is passionate about her work and finds that academia is one pathway that fosters activities for research and also teaching the next generation about how forests work and why they are important. She has always appreciated trees and forests. Because they are under increasing pressures of deforestation, climate change, and fragmentation, she feels a strong need to better understand and help conserve them. A large part of her career has been to carry out public engagement with science, particularly forest ecology. She has devoted her life to raise the awareness of conservation of forests and established programs to convey information to “non-traditional” public audiences such as urban youth, politicians, artists, and incarcerated men and women.

Dr. Nalini was born in October 1954 in USA, and grew up in Bethesda, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C.  Her father (Moreshwar Vithal Nadkarni) was a pharmacologist from Thane, immigrated to USA to get his PhD in Pharmacology at University of Iowa in 1947. He built his career at the National Institute of Health in cancer research. Her father was the one who provided encouragement to Nalini to go into science. Nalini’s mother (Goldie Pechenuk Nadkarni), a Jew of Russian heritage, grew up in New York City and studied Romance languages. She provided Nalini with enthusiasm for languages and communication.

Her family lived in a house with a large yard, and with many trees that she loved to climb. Her four siblings and she were raised with the idea that education is very important, that contributing to the world is essential, and that they could follow their own ideas about what profession they might go into. This freedom allowed Nalini to choose a career where she could not only contribute with her brains but also with her heart.

Nalini attended the Walter Johnson High School, a public school in Bethesda Maryland. In college, Nalini studied liberal arts, with majors in biology and modern dance at Brown University, Providence, RI. She completed B.A. at Brown University: June, 1976, PhD at University of Washington, Seattle, College of Forest Resources: June 1983, and Honorary PhD in Science, Brown University, June, 2015. She undertook Fundamentals of Ecology Course, Organization of Tropical Studies, Costa Rica, in the summer, of 1979.

Dr. Nalini says she is grateful toward her mentors who guided her throughout her professional career. She was made aware of the wonderful field of ecology by one of her undergraduate biology professors at Brown University; Dr. Jon Waage (now retired), who opened up the possibility of an academic pathway to study nature. Nalini spent her year after college at a remote biology field station in Papua New Guinea, being a field assistant for an entomologist who provided her with the opportunity to see what life as a field biologist is like. In graduate school, she was inspired by one of the few women professors on the faculty, Dr. Linda Brubaker, who showed her that a woman (or man!) could be both a respected academician and a parent and spouse. Trying to balance being both dedicated to a professional career and to being a good mother has been the greatest of challenges, as both require time, head, and heart in large measure.

Dr. Nalini’s research interests include the ecological roles that canopy-dwelling plants play in forests at multiple spatial and temporal scales and the effects of forest fragmentation on community function. She is also interested in the development of database tools for canopy researchers; dissemination of research results to non-scientific audiences; partnering of scientists and artists to enhance conservation of forests. She carries out research in Washington State and in Monteverde, Costa Rica, and is supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society, the Mellon Foundation, and the Whitehall Foundation.

She has been actively involved in several research and conservation projects that have attracted extramural support grants such as from National Science Foundation, Chevron Corporation, Northrup Grumman Corporation, National Geographic Society, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, National Science Foundation Ecology Program, National Science Foundation International Program, Murdock Charitable Trust, Institute of Museum Services Conservation Project, California Space Institute, and Whitehall Foundation.

Dr. Nalini has been engaged in reviewing manuscripts for several renowned scientific journals such as Science, Ecology, Forest Ecology and Management, American Journal of Botany, Selbyana, Biotropica, Madroño, Journal of Tropical Ecology, Oecologia, Plant and Soil, Pedobiologia, National Geographic, Ecosystems, Lichenologist, Geoderma, Journal of Vegetation Science, Biological Conservation, Wadsworth Publishing Company, Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press, University of California Press, Cornell University Press, Journal of Insect Conservation, Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

Dr. Nalini has been a panel member of National Science Foundation (Research Experience for Undergraduates Panel, Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant Panel, Biological Facilities Program, Committee of Visitors, Long-term Ecological Studies Programs); National Research Council Committee on Biodiversity, and NSF Biology Directorate etc.

Dr. Nalini has been invited to hundreds of academic seminars and workshops from 2004 until the present. She has been member of several committees of University of Utah. She has been actively engaged in Graduate Student Training and Post-Doctoral Training. She has contributed to hundreds of scientific publications from all around the globe. She has delivered numerous public lectures on ecology and conservation including two TED talks. She has written books casting light on her work of forest canopies, ecology and conservation. She also has written books for children. She has been active in several women’s leadership activities.

Science for the Incarcerated

In 2004, the Sustainability in Prisons Project (SPP). program was co-founded by Nalini Nadkarni, in Washington State. In 2011, she began a similar program in the Biology Department at the University of Utah. The goal of the Initiative to bring Science Programs to the Incarcerated in Utah (INSPIRE) is to bring science and nature to the incarcerated. It involves building connections with science, scientists, inmates, and the corrections community through science lectures, workshops, and conservation projects at correctional facilities in Utah.

In 2014,  the INSPIRE program staff began working with the Utah Department of Corrections and the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office. Programs now include a monthly science lecture series, science workshops, and conservation research projects.

Funding for this program comes from the National Science Foundation, private donations, and in-kind support from program partners.

International Canopy Network

In 1994, Dr. Nalini co-founded the International Canopy Network (ICAN).  It is a non-profit organization dedicated to forest canopy and forest ecosystem conservation through the integration of research, education, and environmental outreach activities that concern forest canopy organisms and interactions.

The ICANis devoted to facilitating the continuing interaction of people concerned with forest canopies and forest ecosystems around the world.

ICAN is a non-profit organization supported by a global community of scientists, conservation advocates, canopy educators, and environmental professionals. The organization is funded by subscriber dues, donations, and grants.

A membership with ICAN represents an investment in a rapidly advancing science for the benefit of both humans and forests. ICAN publishes a tri-annual newsletter “What’s Up?” that addresses issues concerning the forest canopy and features articles, resources, and citations pertaining to research and education.

The ICAN’s email bulletin board serves as an opportunity for researchers, educators, and conservationists to discuss the many concepts, perspectives, and objectives associated with forest canopies.

Conservation Efforts:

Dr. Nalini has made it her mission to create awareness of ecological changes and the need to conserve the forests. Over 80% of humans on Earth identify themselves as being religious or spiritual, a far greater proportion than those who consider themselves as scientists or conservationists. One avenue to promote science and conservation is to link the ecological values of nature and the spiritual and religious values of nature. Nalini approached churches, synagogues, and temples with the offer to provide a guest sermon on the topic of trees and spirituality. She emphasized both the universal spiritual symbolism of trees and the ways that trees and forests are portrayed in the sacred writings of particular religions. Since 2004, she has given over 35 talks in places of worship of many faiths, and has been able to insert conservation and ecological messages with the spiritual discourse.

Dr. Nalini uses different means to promote the cause of conservation. The Canopy Confluence is an interdisciplinary research and outreach project organized by forest ecologists at The Evergreen State College. This includes poets, dancers, and researchers alike. Dr. Nalini taught young rap singers from inner city environments to climb up to canopy platforms on the Evergreen State College campus. They produced a remarkable set of rap songs that integrate elements of the forest canopy environment and hip-hop culture. This in turn inspired a group of urban graffiti artists to create a mural about forest canopies that incorporates urban and wild-land. ‘Biome’ is the creation of a canopy confluence between dancers at Capacitor, Nalini, and forest ecologists. Inspired by a trip high above the ground to the canopy and translated into a stage performance by talented choreographers. Dr. Nalini has worked towards developing clothing accessories in Forest Fashion, depicting biologically accurate pictures of nature, to raise awareness of their beauty and to incite informal conversation about nature and trees on a daily basis! She promotes Tree Art. She has been featured in Poetry Magazine, with her poem, ‘Green I Love You Green’.  She has also worked in conjunction with poets from the Wasatch Wordsmiths and Salt Lake City Slam team to develop and inspire poems that were published in a CHAP Book as a part of community outreach events. With a student graphic artist, she has developed a skateboard logo that depicts a tree intertwined with the Web site of the International Canopy Network.

Dr. Nalini also carries out exploratory research to understand how STEM professionals can engage publics with the excitement of science, science knowledge, and identification with the scientific enterprise, and how STEM professionals can gain valuable input from the public they engage.


·        Forest canopies. Lowman, M. L., and N. M. Nadkarni. 1995. Academic Press, San Diego, California, U.S.A.

Forest Canopies is the first synthesis of research into this previously unchartered forest region. It details innovative techniques for the study of the canopy and describes the structure, function, and biodiversity of canopy ecosystems. Ideal reading for botanists, naturalists, ecologists, and zoologists, or anyone interested in preserving the beauty of these great forests.

·        Monteverde: Ecology and Conservation of a Tropical Cloud Forest. Nadkarni, N. M., and N. T. Wheelwright. 2000. Oxford University Press, New York, New York.

Roughly 40,000 ecotourists visit the Cloud Forest each year, and it is often considered the archetypal high-altitude rain forest. This volume brings together some of the most prominent researchers of the region to provide a broad introduction to the biology of the Monteverde and cloud forests in general. Collecting and synthesizing vital information about the ecosystem and its biota, the book also examines the positive and negative effects of human activity on both the forest and the surrounding communities.

·        Between Earth and SkyOur Intimate Connections with Trees. Nadkarni, N. M. 2008. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

World-renowned canopy biologist Nalini Nadkarni has climbed trees on four continents with scientists, students, artists, clergymen, musicians, activists, loggers, legislators, and Inuits, gathering diverse perspectives. In Between Earth and Sky, a rich tapestry of personal stories, information, art, and photography, she becomes our captivating guide to the leafy wilderness above our heads. Through her luminous narrative, we embark on a multifaceted exploration of trees that illuminates the profound connections we have with them, the dazzling array of goods and services they provide, and the powerful lessons they hold for us. Nadkarni describes trees’ intricate root systems, their highly evolved and still not completely understood canopies, their role in commerce and medicine, their existence in city centers and in extreme habitats of mountaintops and deserts, and their important place in folklore and the arts. She explains tree fundamentals and considers the symbolic role they have assumed in culture and religion.

·        Tra la Terra e il Cielo. La vita segreta degli alberi. Nadkarni, N. M. 2011. (translation into Italian). University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

·        Rain Forest (Kingfisher Voyages). A book for children

Dr. Nalini is deeply committed to public engagement with science. Her work has been featured in Natural History, Glamour, Playboy, and others, and she has appeared in many television documentaries, including Bill Nye the Science Guy, Good Morning, America, National Geographic, and CNN’s The Next List. She has given two TED talks, and over 25 endowed lectures around the world.

Radio program:Dr. Nalini has given a radio program for Earth and Sky Science Reports, Canadian Public Broadcasting (1998).

Television programs: She has contributed to the creation of several TV programs and films.

The Infinite Voyage, WQED (1988);

The Second Voyage of the Mimi, Bank Street College of Education (1989);

Good Morning, America (1992);

Oregon Coast Guide (1994);

Bill Nye the Science Guy, PBS (1997);

Living in Tall Trees, TV Asahi (1997);

Anyplace Wild, (1998); NBC Dateline (1999);

National Geographic Today (2003);

Dragonfly TV for Kids (2003);

Wild Chronicles 2006,

KCTS Connects, 2008, 2010;

CNN’s The Next List, 2012


Tropical Rainforests — IMAX movie produced by the Minnesota Museum of Science (1992);

Heroes of the High Frontier (National Geographic Society Television Special, 1999;

Emmy Award for Best Documentary Film, 2000).


Dr. Nalini is not just a multifaceted multi-talented Academician and ecologist; her indomitable spirit is the greatest feature of her soul. That is why after a near-fatal accident in 2015 (at an age of 61), she managed to fully recover and still is going as strong as ever. Read it in her own words, “In July, 2015, I fell out of a tree while carrying out research in the temperate rainforest of the Olympic National park, in Washington State. I fell 50 feet to the forest floor, and was helicoptered to a trauma center in Seattle. I sustained life-threatening injuries (broken neck, thoracic vertebrae, pelvis; lacerated lung, burst spleen, nine broken ribs, fractured fibula, and traumatic brain injury). Thanks to great medical attention, and the love and support of my family and many friends, I have been able to recover completely in the last two years. I am now once again climbing trees, snowboarding, hiking, swimming, and being grateful to be alive.”

When asked about the values she respects most, Dr. Nalini says, “I value collaborations that are based on trust and respect; on acknowledging contributions of those I work and live with, be they undergraduate students, my children, or senior academics. She believes in contributing to the world; to be creative; to be aware of the ordinary magic of lifeI She values listening to people who are outside of the academy, as they so often have much to teach me, even though we (as professors) tend to think of ourselves as being the ones to teach others.”

To the younger generation she wishes to say, “Be assured that if you encounter an obstacle or must make a decision to turn down an opportunity, other such opportunities (perhaps in different forms) will appear in the future”.

“I’ve done everything I have wanted to do. I would just like to continue”, says she.

Dr. Nalini is proud of her Indian roots, which provided her with a different cultural lens to learn about the world. She says, “We grew up with many Indian customs – eating with our hands, sleeping on mattresses on the floor, saying Namaste to Ganapati when we travelled. My father sent funds to his ‘Bhataji’ throughout my childhood, and we would regularly get packets of sacred leaves that he put in our hair. I am grateful to my parents for having raised my siblings and me to understand the underlying universality of human beings. I am grateful that they taught us that a Hindu from a small village in India and an Orthodox Jew from New York City can live in love and harmony even though their backgrounds are very different”.


2015-present: Professor of Biology, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT

2011- 2014: Director, Center for Science and Mathematics Education, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT

1991-2011: Member of the Faculty, The Evergreen State College, Olympia, Washington

1989–91: Director of Research, The Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, Sarasota, Florida

1984–89: Assistant Professor, University of California, Santa Barbara

Adjunct Appointments:

Affiliate Associate Professor, University of Washington, School of Forest Resources

Associate Research Staff, The Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

Research Associate, Missouri Botanical Garden

Professional Societies:

Ecological Society of America, Vice President for Education and Diversity, 2015-2018

Association for Tropical Biology, President, 2002; Council Member 2000-2001

International Canopy Network, Co-founder and President, 1994–present

Advisory Boards:

Member, Advisory Committee, Biology Directorate, National Science Foundation (2010-present)

Member, Committee for Public Understanding of Science and Understanding, AAAS (2007-2010)

Member, The Nature Conservancy Board of Trustees, Washington State (1990-2012); Utah (2011-present)

Member, Center for Advancing Informal Science Education Advisory Board (2012-present)

Member, Hubbard Brook Research Foundation Advisory Board (2013-present)

Member, National Geographic Explorer’s Council (2014-present)

Member, International Union for Forestry Research Organizations, Planning Committee, 2014

Steering Committee Member, National Alliance for Broader Impacts, 2015-present


Dr. Nalini has been endowed with numerous awards and honors. Some of the more recent ones are:

·        Distinguished Professor of Innovation and Impact, University of Utah, 2018

·        WINGS Worldquest Women of Discovery Lifetime Achievement Award, 2018

·        Ecological Society of America Fellow, 2016

·        TIME Magazine names Nadkarni’s bringing nature imagery to prisoners in solitary confinement as “One of the Best Inventions of 2014”

·        The William Julius Wilson Award for the Advancement of Social Justice, Washington State University, 2015

·        Archie F. Carr Medal for Conservation, 2013

·        Artist in Residency, Columbus College of Art and Design, 2012

·        University of Utah Woman of Note, 2012

·        American Association for the Advancement of Science Award for Public Engagement 2011

·        Parchi Monumentali Bardini e Peyron Foundation’s “Monito del Giardino Prize for Environmental Action, Florence, Italy, 2011

·        National Science Foundation Board Public Service Award, 2010

·        Education Award, Washington Correctional Association Conference, 2010

·        Evergreen State College Faculty Achievement Award, 2010

·        Playboy Honor Roll (Top 20 most innovative college professors in the USA, Playboy Magazine) 2010

·        Award for Canopy Ecology, 5th International Canopy Conference, 2009

·        Distinguished Alumni Award, Univ. of Washington College of Forest Resources, 2008

·        Grace Hopper Lifetime Achievement Award, 2007

·        Visiting Scholar, Helen Whiteley Center, University of Washington, 2006, 2007

·        Robert Hefner Endowed Lecture, Miami University, 2005

·        Pettigill Endowed Lectureship, University of Michigan, 2005

·        Aldo Leopold Leadership Fellow, 2004

·        Distinguished Visiting Professor, University of Miami, 2003-2004

·        John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, 2001–02

·        Association for Tropical Biology, President, 2001–02

·        Board Member, The Nature Conservancy, 1998–200

·        Stirling Morton Award, The National Arbor Day Foundation, 1997

·        Alice and Rolla Tryon Endowed Lecture in Tropical Botany, University of South Florida, 1996

·        Council Member, Association for Tropical Biology, 1994–97

·        Jane and Whitney Harris Lectureship, International Center for Tropical Ecology, University of Missouri, 1994


Dr. Nalini met her life partner John T. Longino (married 33 years) in Costa Rica. They were both doing fieldwork for their dissertations. He is an entomologist who studies ants. Nalini was climbing trees to learn about the forest canopy. He visited Nalini’s field station and told her that he wanted to know if there were ants in the canopy; so Nalini taught him how to climb with her ropes. They fell in love and have been together ever since. Myrmecologist John Longino is also a professor at the University of Utah.

Dr. Nalini and John are blessed with two children, Her son, August, was born in August, 1989 and daughter, Erika, was born in September 1992.

Dr. Nalini says, “I am grateful to my husband for supporting my professional aspirations, and to my children for giving me such joy and teaching me the importance of patience and allowing other people to be who they are and not what I want them to be. I am grateful to my friends for support during hard times.”

 A Tribute by a Daughter: The May Apple Trees



To a child, a father is mostly just a father, not a professional. In this column, I have the opportunity to describe his contributions to cancer research. As the third daughter of Dr. M.V. Nadkarni, a career pharmacologist with the National Cancer Institute (NCI), my job each morning was to iron his white shirt before he went off to work, a formal figure in his suit, tie, and briefcase. He returned each day at 6 pm, his suit, tie, and briefcase looking just as tidy as they had that morning. Only seldom did he speak of his work, but I came to understand that he was helping to find cures for cancer through the use of plants, and, later in his career as a Program Director, he helped others to do the same.

My father was born on July 18, 1918, the second son of a family from the village of Thane, India, near Mumbai. He received his Bachelors of Science in chemistry from the University of Bombay. He was one of the early waves of Indian scholars to arrive in the United States for higher education, his boat sailing beneath the arches of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1945. He received a scholarship from the Indian government to study pharmacology, and completed his PhD in 1947 at the State University of Iowa.

That is where he met my mother, Goldie Pechenuk, an Orthodox Jew of Russian parentage, from Brooklyn, New York who was studying Romance languages. Although their union was initially frowned upon by both families, they married and raised five children in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. At that time, Indians were rare, even in our nation’s capital, and mixed marriages even rarer.

My parents decided to raise us in a home that was as Indian as possible, so my mother cooked Indian food, which we ate with our hands while sitting on the kitchen floor. A small ivory carving of Ganapati sat on an alter in our pantry – right next to the Menorah. If a family member were sick, or about to take a journey, we would gather to say “Namaste” and receive the sweet-smelling prasad that my father obtained from the bhattaji in his home village, and which arrived in fragrant envelopes to our house several times a year. On Sunday mornings, my father would read to the five children from the writings of Jarwarlal Nehru. In the dark of winter, we celebrated Diwali as well as Christmas and Chanukah.

I grew up to become a forest ecologist, and now carry out research on tropical rainforest ecology with the support of grants from the National Science Foundation. It is only now, as an adult and as a scientist myself, that I can better appreciate the professional work of my father in cancer chemotherapy and grants administration at the NCI. Looking over my father’s Curriculum Vitae, I now understand that he did not just go to and from work with his tidy briefcase, but that he contributed strongly in the search for tools against cancer.

Although my father went back to India immediately after getting his doctorate to look for a professional job, he ended finding his dream position carrying out cancer research in the United States. He began his career as a Post-Doctoral Fellow, at the NCI, in Bethesda, Maryland.  As a young investigator, he explored the components of podophyllin, an isolate from the plant Podophyllum emodi, the Himalayan Mayapple native to India. He also explored other aspects of cancer chemotherapy, including the excretion of alkylating drugs in cancer patients and the toxicology of phthalanilides.  From 1954-1958, he joined the faculty in the Department of Pharmacology at George Washington University, but then returned to the NCI as the Head of the Pharmacology Section in Drug Evaluation Research.

As he progressed forward in his career, he moved up into the higher levels of administration. The position he held when he retired was as the Chief of Extramural Research in the Developmental Therapeutics Program at the NCI.  His patient and deliberate nature, his attention to detail, and his insistence on the highest integrity of work based on science rather than politics, made him the right person to provide oversight for the awarding of grants.

From my current perspective, I see that he contributed greatly as an Indian-born scientist at a time when there were few other Indians in his professional and personal arena. Although we had a few Indian families as our friends, the culture and customs that my family practiced were not the norm for suburban Maryland. When I look at the group pictures taken at the Gordon Conferences and other meetings he attended, his is the only brown and unmistakably Indian face in those groups.

My father died of a sudden stroke on August 9, 1995, at age 79. He enjoyed his last years with Goldie, his wife of 44 years; his five children — Saroj, Susheela, Nalini, Vinay, and Mohan — and his many grandchildren. To the end, he worked in his beloved garden, enjoying especially the native May apple plants that bloomed there each spring