I’ve spent a lot of time in recent years pondering the future of exploration. As we creep into the 21st century, what exactly is the definition of exploring? New lands have essentially all been discovered, we’re no longer out looking to plant flags on new territory. These days we are spending more time attempting to discover new energy sources over new finds of gold, silver or silk. Ending disease is today a far more prominent search than trying to discover what’s just over the horizon.
Some direction to my big question was provided recently at the headquarters of the National Geographic Society. I had the privilege of sitting in on its annual, two-day Explorer’s Symposium and hearing from some of its newly-appointed class of “Emerging Explorers.” The emphasis among the bulk of the 14 young explorers was definitely science, focused more on agroecologists and molecular biologists than hard-bodied climbers eyeing new peaks simply because they are there.
The program goes back eight years – its first “class” was anointed in 2004 — and focuses on recognizing and supporting “uniquely gifted and inspiring young adventurers, scientists, photographers and storytellers, explorers who are already making a difference early in their careers.” Each gets a stipend of $10,000, an introduction to the extensive depths of the Society’s in-house media connections and access to the more veteran Explorers-in-Residence and Fellows it supports.
Several of the new class are already atop their fields and have gotten some good press. Sasha Kramer’s non-profit SOIL (Sustainable Organic Livelihoods) has been building toilets and trying to transform Haiti’s waste into valuable resources since 2006. Norwegian paleontologist Jorn Hurum has been digging for fossils for several decades and has unearthed the bones of 50-foot long, sea-loving cousins he’s dubbed “Predator X.” Nairobi-based Paula Kahumbu is capitalizing on the Internet to help preserve wildlife in Africa, Asia and South America, as executive director of both WildlifeDirect and the Kenya Land Conservation Trust, which allows interested parties (donors, scientists, the general public) to observe real wildlife problems in real time using blogs, online videos and fundraising tools.
Certainly each of the emerging explorers is already having an impact in their chosen fields, whether as educators or in-the-field scientists. Five to keep your eyes on:
1. Hayat Sindi is introduced as a “Science Entrepreneur.” Her main work focuses on new ways to monitor health in remote and impoverished parts of the world, specifically using low-tech diagnostic tools to test for liver function. Across the developing world, powerful drugs are used to combat HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and hepatitis. Unfortunately the same drugs often cause liver damage. The result is that millions are dying from the very medications meant to save them, because doctors don’t have the ability to monitor long-term health implications. Born in Saudi Arabia, when she moved to London hoping to attend university there, she spoke no English; she learned by watching the BBC and became the first Saudi woman accepted at Cambridge University in the field of biotechnology. She is now a visiting scholar at Harvard, working on her Ph.D., and she and her team have been awarded prizes by both MIT’s $100K Entrepreneurship Competition and the Harvard Enterprise Competition, the first group ever to win both prizes in the same year.
2. Ashley Murray’s modest goal is get the world to rethink how it views waste and wastewater. Given that 2.5 billion people on the planet wake up with no access to basic sanitation, her audience is sizable. Her specific goal is to turn getting rid of or recycling wastewater into for-profit businesses. Currently based in Ghana, she founded a company there called Waste Enterprises, which relies on human waste as its primary product and looks for ways to reuse, recycle and profit from it in order to help provide better sanitation for the poor. The options seem endless: Fertilizer for fish farms, as industrial fuel to help make cement, to replace coal or oil as an energy provider. “The real goal is improving basic sanitation, health, and environmental conditions for some of the world’s poorest populations,” she says. “If I can prove this is a viable business model, I hope copycats spring up everywhere. I want to catalyze the use of our ideas in cities all across Africa.”
3. Kevin Hand is no ordinary rocket scientist. His job at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, under contract to NASA, is to figure out a way to send a probe to explore Europa, Jupiter’s fourth largest moon. Why Europa? Its average temperature is 280 degrees below zero, is devoid of atmosphere and at times is 600 million miles from Earth. But it is believed, below its ice surface, to be home to a 60-mile deep ocean (Earth’s is just seven miles at its deepest), which means it could be home to three times the volume of liquid water as Earth. His is a long-term commitment: The orbiting probe is not expected to be ready until 2020 and will take six years to reach Jupiter, then spend two years touring the planet’s four largest moons before spiraling back to Earth. “By the time we get there,” says Hand, “I’ll be a much older man. This business is not for the faint of heart.” To research the best way to study such a forbidding place, his travels have taken him from the glaciers of Mount Kilimanjaro to the valleys of Antarctica, testing new tools he hopes will one day be strapped to the end of a robotic arm 600 million miles from Earth.
4. Juan Martinez grew up in a tool shed in South Central Los Angeles, far from anything remotely considered wilderness. Ironically, it was failing a high school science test that led to three months of after-school detail tending a garden begun by its Eco Club. A two-week scholarship to Wyoming’s Teton Science School followed. “Ten years later, I still can’t find words to describe the first moment I saw those mountains rising up from the valley,” Martinez recalls. “Watching bison, seeing a sky full of stars, and hiking through that scenery was overwhelming.” Today he is national spokesman for getting youth, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, into the outdoors. Everyone from the Sierra Club to the White House have recognized his efforts; his Natural Leaders Network of the Children & Nature Network creates links between environmental organizations, corporations, government, education and individuals to reconnect children with nature, with an optimistic spin. “Some kids on my trips have been in foster care their whole lives, feeling very disconnected from other people. Suddenly they’re out in the backcountry relying on each other. Nature can be a real facilitator for skills that are so crucial in life-communicating, working together, and realizing you can do things you never thought you could (like hiking six rough miles in one day). I take kids who have been abused, heavily medicated for behavior problems, violent, distrustful, but after a few days outdoors they’re sharing feelings and fears, laughing, and thinking like a team. You may be able to see the stars through a computer screen or book, but it’s nothing like lying on the grass looking up at the Milky Way.”
5. Cambodian Tuy Sereivathana also grew up in an urban setting, but his introduction to wildlife was thanks to the Khmer Rouge, who chased his family into hiding in a remote part of the Cambodian rain forest. So many people were similarly forced into a rural life they quickly began to impede on those that were there first, particularly elephants. “Overnight a traditional elephant migration route would become a rice farm,” says Tuy. With rain forests shrinking, hungry elephants foraged farmlands, destroying crops. The poor farmers fought back, killing elephants to protect “their” lands. As a result, Cambodia’s elephant population dwindled to fewer than 500. Tuy has made a career of trying to introduce a conservation ethic into the country “People were not well educated about conservation,” he says. “They thought the elephants belonged to my project, so they threw all their anger at me. It was difficult to build trust and convince them to join my efforts. But day-by-day we proved that we were concerned not only with elephants, but also with human beings. His efforts have led to construction of schools and encouraged teachers to make conservation part of their curriculum. Since 2005 not a single wild elephant has been killed in Cambodia due to human conflict.
[Flickr image via Paulo Brandão]