By Caroline Braun and Ford Cochran
National Geographic has named 14 trailblazers from around the world–including an electrical engineer, a musician, a bioarchaeologist, a mobile technology innovator, and a herpetologist–to its 2010 Emerging Explorers class.
The Emerging Explorers Program recognizes and supports uniquely gifted and inspiring adventurers, scientists, photographers, and storytellers making a significant contribution to world knowledge through exploration while still early in their careers. Each will receive a $10,000 award to assist with research and to aid further exploration.
“National Geographic’s mission is to inspire people to care about the planet, and our Emerging Explorers are outstanding young leaders whose endeavors further this mission,” said Terry Garcia, the Society’s executive vice president for Mission Programs. “We are pleased to support them as they set out on promising careers. They represent tomorrow’s Edmund Hillarys, Jacques Cousteaus and Dian Fosseys.”
We asked Cheryl Zook, manager of the Emerging Explorers Program, what criteria the Geographic uses when selecting candidates.
Exploration is not bounded by geographical constraints. Exploration can be just as exciting and ground-breaking in the world of microbes as in the realms of outer space. We look for visionary individuals who approach their respective disciplines in new and innovative ways. In each class of Emerging Explorers, we also look for a diverse group of individuals who will bring different strengths to the table. Ideally, they’ll make cross-disciplinary connections and think creatively about the issues that we face in the 21st century, whether in technology, ecology, culture, or media and communications.
What have some of the Emerging Explorers accomplished?
We launched the program in 2004, and since that inaugural year, we have named about 65 individuals. It’s been thrilling to see their relationship with National Geographic develop: 2004 Emerging Explorer Spencer Wells is now an Explorer-in-Residence and the originator and leader of National Geographic’s Genographic Project; Enric Sala, a 2007 Emerging Explorer who brought a vision of resetting people’s baseline for what a pristine ocean should look like, now leads National Geographic’s Oceans Initiative; 2007 Emerging Explorer Luke Dollar’s passion for preserving wildlife and habitats has landed him in the role of managing the Society’s Big Cats Initiative.
I’m also impressed with the way the Explorers connect and find ways to work together. 2006 Emerging Explorer Maria Fadiman and 2007 Emerging Explorer David de Rothschild joined forces to investigate oil exploration in the Amazon and the ecological destruction it can cause. 2009 Emerging Explorer Katey Walter Anthony and Thomas Culhane teamed up to explore the feasibility of building biogas digesters for use in cold climates. These sorts of collaboration are the ideal outcome of a program that seeks to give visionary individuals the latitude to explore new ideas and encouragement to continue to expand their work, knowing that they are part of a larger family of explorers.”
National Geographic’s 2010 Emerging Explorers:
- Pakistani-American environmental scientist Saleem Ali, professor of environmental planning and Asian studies at the University of Vermont, believes that environmental conservation can succeed only if vying factions communicate and collaborate. He facilitates that process as a professional mediator for companies, governments, and indigenous communities; as an adviser to the United Nations on environmental conflicts and strategies; and as a professor, researcher, and author. In 2007, he was chosen by Seed magazine as one of eight “Revolutionary Minds in the World” in recognition of his work on using environmental factors as a means of conflict resolution.
- Mobile technology innovator Ken Banks of Cambridge, England, devotes himself to the application of mobile technology for positive social and environmental change in the developing world. Although he has never monitored elections in Africa, run a rural health-care network in India, or brought crucial pricing information to farmers in El Salvador, some software he created and provides free to grassroots nonprofit organizations does all that and more. FrontlineSMS is a text-messaging-based field communication application that enables groups in more than 50 countries to send and receive information in remote areas without Internet access. Deploying the technology requires just a laptop computer, a cell phone, and a cable.
- Aparajita Datta, a wildlife biologist with the Nature Conservation Foundation in Mysore, India, has spent the last 13 years studying and conserving the tropical rainforests of Arunachal Pradesh in northeastern India, arguably the country’s richest biodiversity region. She explores the conservation challenges facing one of the world’s last vast tracts of wilderness and the complex issues confronting the tribal Lisu people who call this region home. She initiated a community-based conservation program with the Lisu to reduce hunting and save wildlife by first improving the quality of life for local families.
- Agroecologist Jerry Glover is a soil specialist and part of a research team developing perennial grain crops that could revolutionize agriculture and be key to meeting global food needs. Glover’s team at the Land Institute in Salinas, Kansas, partners with plant breeders and agricultural scientists around the world to develop prototypes of primarily wheat, rice, and maize that they hope will become viable perennial crops that can feed more people. This involves meticulous genetic detective work, breeding and cross-breeding seeds to select characteristics that will ultimately make a top crop.
- Bioarchaeologist Christine Lee of the Research Center for Chinese Frontier Archaeology, Jilin University, Changchun, combines physical anthropology and archaeology to study human remains, coaxing secrets about ancient civilizations from skeletons. She hopes her research can become a bridge between the United States, where she was raised, and China, where she works, and sees her discoveries as providing information and understanding between the two cultures. Exploring diversity is at the core of Lee’s archaeological research, and often her search begins with a tooth. Dental anthropology can reveal everything from population origins and migration histories to information about intermarriage.
- University of California, San Diego, research scientist and engineer Albert Yu-Min Lin‘s explorations are groundbreaking, if only figuratively–as he never breaks ground. He uses non-invasive computer-based technologies to gather, synthesize, and visualize data in previously unreachable places, without disturbing a blade of grass. Cutting-edge tools such as satellite imagery, ground-penetrating radar, and remote sensors permit Lin to make archaeological discoveries while respecting the traditional beliefs of indigenous peoples and the sanctity of sacred places. He is currently using 3-D immersive technologies to search for the tomb of Genghis Khan.
- Mongolian paleontologist Bolortsetseg Minjin has unearthed numerous dinosaur and other mammal fossils in the Gobi Desert, but the discoveries she covets most are new students who will keep Mongolian paleontology alive. She has made attracting other young Mongolians to her field a priority, and has established outreach programs through schools, museums, and the media. She also established the Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs, which provides a research facility, expedition vehicles, equipment and scholarships for Mongolian students.
- Educator and activist Kakenya Ntaiya is the founder and president of Kakenya Center for Excellence in her home village of Enoosen in southern Kenya. It is the first and only school for girls in the region. A passionate advocate for girls’ education, Ntaiya persuaded her father that she not follow traditional Maasai culture and marry at age 13. She became the first girl in her village to pursue an education in the United States, where she is completing a Ph.D. Kakenya believes that education will empower and motivate young girls to become agents of change in their communities and countries.
- Electrical engineer Aydogan Ozcan uses his expertise to solve global health issues–with a cell phone. His research team at the University of California, Los Angeles, has invented a way to turn common cell phones, already owned by 4 billion people worldwide, into imaging tools capable of bringing medical diagnoses to the most resource-poor corners of the planet. His modified phone uses a special light source and the phone’s camera to capture the image of a blood sample, essentially turning the phone into a portable microscope. Hundreds of these devices will be used this year to help diagnose malaria in Africa.
- Musician and activist Feliciano dos Santos uses music to spread the message of sanitation and hygiene to some of the poorest, most remote villages in Mozambique. Santos’ band Massukos’ hit song, “Wash Your Hands,” is part of a public health campaign created by his NGO, Estamos. The project has led to the installation of thousands of sustainable “EcoSan” latrines, dramatically improving sanitation and reducing disease in the region. An added benefit is that the composting toilets turn waste into fertilizer, significantly increasing crop production and allowing some families to earn income for the first time.
- Molecular biologist Beth Shapiro of Penn State University studies ancient DNA to give new insight into the fundamental processes of evolution. This burgeoning field uses genetic information gleaned from ancient animals and plants to discover how evolution happens over time and territory. By analyzing DNA samples from species at many moments in time, Shapiro can trace changes in populations and overlay those changes with concurrent environmental events. “We can pinpoint when a species’ genetic diversity changed and see if that change may have been influenced by a specific event such as a new predator or shift in climate.”
- Conservationist and wildlife researcher Emma Stokes began her work with the Wildlife Conservation Society in the Republic of Congo. Her team’s discovery of the single largest population of 125,000 lowland gorillas in a partially unexplored region of Congo has helped Stokes catalyze Congolese government action toward designating part of the region as a new protected area. She now works on behalf of another endangered species, the Asian tiger; only about 3,200 remain. The Tigers Forever Project aims to increase tiger populations by 50 percent in nine key sites across Asia over 10 years.
- Herpetologist-toxinologist Zoltan Takacs has been intrigued by snakes since he captured and bred vipers as a child in Hungary. As an avid pilot and diver, surviving wars and snake bites, his travels have taken him to 133 countries in search of venoms. Toxins in animal venoms are nature’s perfect killers. Yet, the same toxins are the source of a dozen lifesaving drugs to treat high blood pressure, heart attack, diabetes, and cancer pain. At the University of Chicago, Takacs co-invented a technology to create and screen toxin libraries that could push this number further and faster on the drug discovery path.
- Marine biologist and conservationist Jose Urteaga works with Fauna and Flora International to develop monitoring protocols, habitat protection and a network of hatcheries for marine turtles. All seven species are endangered, some critically. Five species live and breed in Nicaragua, where Urteaga does his research. He works to stop the extensive poaching of eggs and adult turtles by offering locals new income alternatives such as organic farming, beekeeping, and crafts. He teaches fishermen how to release hooked and entangled turtles and gives them new fish hooks that are less harmful to turtles.
PNY Technologies is a presenting sponsor of the Emerging Explorers Program and a National Geographic Mission Partner for Exploration & Adventure. The program is made possible in part by the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation, which has supported the program since its inception in 2004.
Photos by Maria S. Ali (Ali), Karola Riegler (Banks), Kalyan Varma (Datta), Jim Richardson (Glover), Erik Jepson/Calit2 (Lin), Matthew Mihlbachler (Minjin), Sharon Farmer (Ntalya), Phil Channing (Ozcan), Rebecca J. Vander Meulen (Santos), John Goodrich/WCS (Stokes), Zoltan Takacs (Takacs), Rachel Etherington/Fauna & Flora International (Urteaga), and courtesy Beth Shapiro (Shapiro)