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Interview with National Geographic Society’s Dr. Aurora Elmore

By Reaganne Hansford

It all started with a question: Why? Why, with the state of today’s world, do you still care? This question could be asked to anyone, at any point in our Earth’s history, and the answer would be interesting. So I decided to ask the people who are usually the ones asking this three-letter word, employees of National Geographic, “Why?”

I sat outside of the National Geographic Museum, slipping my feet out of my well-worn Birkenstocks into a pair of black, ankle-tie heels. I was nearly an hour early for my interview with Dr. Aurora Elmore. of the National Geographic Society, Senior Program Officer of Our Changing Planet, a grant program within the Society. In order to kill time before the interview, I watched a promotional video for the Museum’s shark exhibit on loop, entranced by the clips of scientists studying the lives of sharks all over the world trying to understand why sharks behave the way they do. This is the place where I’ll get my science-y, conservation answer, I thought. After all, I’d been reading the magazines since I was a child — these people are scientists.

About ten minutes before our scheduled meeting time, I checked in with the front desk so Dr. Elmore wouldn’t be aware that I’d arrived far too early for it to be considered professional punctuality. The woman at the front desk handed me a paper nametag with my name and the word “Interview.” After quickly snapping a picture of the tag (which I knew I would have to give back on my way out because I’d watched four or five other visitors do so as I waited) to send to my family, I clipped the name tag to the lapel of my blazer and sat down again, gazing around in renewed wonder for this basecamp of discovery. Above my head, extending from one end of the building, through the elevator well and out the front doors, hung a model of what appeared to be a mountain range (which Dr. Elmore told me on my way out was a model of the Grand Canyon, a nod to Teddy Roosevelt. I was studying its peaks and ridges and the deep chasm running through the center when Dr. Elmore poked her head around the corner and asked if I was Reaganne. We headed upstairs to her office.

Once in her office — a long room with plenty of natural lighting and several green plants perched on the windowsill — I sat on the couch opposite her desk and turned on my recorder. First, I asked her to describe her position at National Geographic:  She explained that her work primarily involves grants for Our Changing Planet, her specialization being in the proposals that don’t have “cute faces.” In addition to serving as a climate change expert for the Society, she reviews proposals for paleontology, climate change, oceanography, atmospheric science, space, and other Earth Science disciplines. Coming from a background of science (she holds a Ph.D. in Geology from Rutgers University), she knows what she’s talking about. After spending about six years in post-doc research, she realized that she wasn’t finding what she was looking for in academia; she wanted to help people.

“Being outside, answering questions, and helping people were always really important to me.”

Now there I was, speaking to a scientist whom I had chosen to interview specifically because I was looking for an answer based in traditional conservation ideology. Yet there I was, for the second time, proven wrong. Dr. Elmore had hinted at this when she walked me through her schooling experience, but I hadn’t put it all together until now. She had said, “I had done about two years of [coursework in] biochemical engineering,” a field she’d gotten into because, as a talented math and science student from rural Maine, engineering is what she thought she had to do. “When I started to look for internships I had a real panic. I realized I would be in a lab, in a white coat, torturing rats, and I knew I would hate it. I looked at what I enjoyed, being outside, answering questions, and helping people were always really important to me.”

She looked into law school, but ended up choosing a graduate school at the University of South Carolina-Columbia, with the knowledge that she wanted to use the graduate degree she earned in science in order to help people. I was beginning to understand a trend in the new forms of conservation: someone trained in science, wanted to help people. I was amazed and hooked.

“I wanted to talk to people about how their world is changing,” is the best way I can sum up Dr. Elmore’s interview, and the message she conveyed about who she is, and why she does what she does, and why she cares, all ties back to this simple statement. She answered my question with that statement, yet when I actually asked the question, “Why do you care,” she scrambled for an answer. I recognize that this is not an easy question to answer, yet I see the answer as the main motivation for why we do what we choose to do with our lives.

Teddy Roosevelt cared about the American wild, and so he dedicated wildlife refuges and national monuments (one of them being the canyon suspended from the Society’s ceiling). John Muir cared about the wild as well (though his experience wasn’t formed so much by the hunting of wild game and as by spending solitary time in nature), so he co-founded the Audubon Society to educate the public about conservation. Dr. Elmore reviews and approves grants, providing money and resources to scientists so she can talk to people about the way the world they know and interact with is changing.

I asked if there was anything else she felt was important for people to hear before I wrapped up the interview. As the Society’s resident climate change expert, she explained that when people ask if climate change really matters, her response goes something like, “If you live in the United States and you don’t care about the wellbeing of people in poor island nations, then no, climate change won’t directly affect you as drastically, because the government and scientists will find ways for you to eat and drink, and you’re essentially going to be fine. But if you do care about those people, then yes, it really matters, because those people are not going to be okay.” By working in grants, Dr. Elmore is able to expand the opportunities for research that will uncover more of how the world is changing, so people can understand how to prepare for their futures.

Reaganne Hansford is a transplant to Washington, D.C. after spending the past two years at Boston College, studying Applied Psychology and Sustainability.  After completing research out of American University, she will continue her studies at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, this fall. She has also written on the business of renewable energy for Advanced Energy Economy (aee.net). Her passions lie in asking the right questions, writing down the answers, sharing those answers to help people better understand their world, and finding the best hiking trail in Northern Virginia.

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