WASHINGTON (June 9, 2015)—The National Geographic Society has selected its 2015 class of Emerging Explorers, a group of 14 inspiring young trailblazers from around the globe whose creative ideas and accomplishments are making a significant difference in the world. The Emerging Explorers Program recognizes and supports uniquely gifted and inspiring scientists, conservationists and innovators who are at the forefront of discovery, adventure and global problem-solving while still early in their careers. Each Emerging Explorer receives a $10,000 award to aid further research and exploration.
The 2015 Emerging Explorers are archaeologist Salam Al Kuntar; paleoanthropologist Ella Al-Shamahi; marine conservationist Jessica Cramp; nuclear engineer Leslie Dewan; urban agriculturalist Caleb Harper; biologist Elaine Hsiao; wildlife conservationist Onkuri Majumdar; conservation ranger Innocent Mburanumwe; biophysicist Manu Prakash; neuroscientist Steve Ramirez; biomedical engineer David Moinina Sengeh; infectious disease ecologist Daniel Streicker; materials architect Skylar Tibbits; and engineer and physicist Topher White.
They will be introduced this week at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C., during the Society’s annual Explorers Week, when National Geographic explorers, grantees and others affiliated with the Society gather to share findings from their research and fieldwork and take part in panel discussions.
National Geographic Emerging Explorers may be selected from virtually any field, ranging from the Society’s traditional arenas of anthropology, archaeology, photography, space exploration, earth sciences and cartography to the worlds of technology, art, music and filmmaking.
“National Geographic believes in the power of science, exploration and storytelling to change the world. Our Emerging Explorers are inspiring young visionaries who are looking at ways to remedy global problems and are undertaking innovative research and exploration. They will help lead a new age of discovery,” said Terry Garcia, National Geographic’s chief science and exploration officer.
Salam Al Kuntar, a Syrian-born archaeologist, is one of the leading advocates for the protection of her war-torn homeland’s historical sites and treasures. More than 90 percent of Syria’s cultural sites are located in areas of fighting and civil unrest. Before leaving Damascus for the United States three years ago, Al Kuntar was co-director of excavations at the Chalcolithic/Bronze Age site of Hamoukar. She was also a member of the Syrian Directorate of Antiquities and Museums. Al Kuntar, who earned her Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge, England, is now a research scholar at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University and a consulting scholar at the Penn Cultural Heritage Center in Philadelphia, where she works with a range of people and institutions to protect Syria’s cultural heritage. In collaboration with the Smithsonian Institute and by working with a network of Syrian scholars in Europe and a dedicated group of heritage professionals inside Syria, Al Kuntar and her colleagues have been able to provide much needed emergency preservation work, conservation materials and training in the hopes of salvaging damaged collections and sites during the conflict. She is also working with refugee populations that have taken refuge in a World Heritage site in Syria, trying to help them preserve the ruins.
Paleoanthropologist and archaeologist Ella Al-Shamahi specializes in Neanderthals — and is also a stand-up comic. Her Ph.D. research focuses on the rates of evolution of Neanderthals so as to better understand the reasons for their extinction. Al-Shamahi measures their evolutionary changes by studying variations in their teeth over tens of thousands of years. Much of her work involves searching for fossils in caves in disputed, hostile or unstable regions such as Yemen, her father’s country of origin, where she has to wear a burka, even while doing fieldwork. She is currently trying to find Paleolithic caves in Yemen to test a theory that early humans may have migrated out of Africa via land bridges between East Africa and Yemen and to test whether Neanderthals went that far south. Al-Shamahi uses comedy as both a coping strategy for the darker side of her work and to communicate to people why science is important. She has performed a stand-up routine on Neanderthals in London and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Al-Shamahi holds degrees from Imperial College London/Natural History Museum in London and University College London.
Marine conservationist Jessica Cramp is a shark researcher and policy advocate who is passionate about stopping the overexploitation of sharks, and she is combining science with politics, outreach and a deep respect for Pacific cultures to do it. While living in the Cook Islands, she managed the locally based Pacific Islands Conservation Initiative (PICI), whose founder had a dream to create a shark sanctuary. Together, they led the grassroots campaign that rallied overwhelming community and international support and resulted in the 772,204-square-mile (2-million-square-km) Cook Islands Shark Sanctuary (the entire Exclusive Economic Zone of the Cook Islands), banning all commercial import, export, sale, trade, possession or transshipment of shark parts. During the campaign, Cramp realized that there were gaps not only in scientific knowledge about sharks, their fisheries and ecosystems, but also in linking conservation policies to action. Building on her experience, she is currently completing a Ph.D. through James Cook University in Australia on the effectiveness of large-scale marine reserves in reducing mortality of threatened sharks. Through the creation of the research, outreach and advocacy organization Sharks Pacific, she and her team will work toward filling those gaps. Cramp believes that by engaging communities and taking an interdisciplinary approach to conservation and sustainable use of sharks and their ecosystems, ending the overexploitation of threatened shark (and ray) species is possible in her lifetime.
Nuclear engineer Leslie Dewan, co-founder and chief executive officer of Transatomic Power, is helping revolutionize the nuclear power industry. She and a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) colleague have designed a new type of nuclear reactor, which is a safer, more efficient alternative to the current light-water reactors in use today. Called the “Waste-Annihilating Molten-Salt Reactor,” Dewan’s design is based on molten-salt reactors that were originally proposed in the 1950s as a way to power aircraft. The main advantage of molten-salt reactors is that they use liquid rather than solid fuel, making them more efficient and safer. The original molten-salt prototypes, however, were bulky, expensive and had a low power density. Dewan has introduced new materials and a new shape that allowed her to increase power output by 30 times. With the Waste-Annihilating Molten-Salt Reactor, 96 percent of the energy can be extracted, compared to only 3 or 4 percent with conventional reactors. By extracting more of the energy, the radioactive life of the majority of the waste can be reduced to just a few hundred years, compared to conventional nuclear waste that is radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. An environmentalist at heart, Dewan says we need nuclear power if we are to have any hope of reducing fossil fuel emissions and preventing climate change. Dewan was named one of Time magazine’s “30 People Under 30 Changing the World” in 2013.
For urban agriculturalist Caleb Harper, the future of agriculture lies in urban farms, where plants will be grown in controlled environments close to consumers, allowing for cheaper, fresher produce. Harper is the principal research scientist and director of the Open Agriculture (OpenAG) Initiative and MITCityFARM at the MIT Media Lab. He leads a group of diverse engineers, architects, urban planners, economists and plant scientists in the exploration and development of high-performance urban agricultural systems. Harper believes that if we create a perfect growing environment, there is the potential of speeding up growth and of producing plants that are two or three times more nutritious than what we can buy at a store — all while using fewer natural resources. Fundamental to his work is not only the production of food, but also the production of food innovators. For this, Harper and his team are creating open-source agricultural platforms, or food computers, and deploying them all over the world. One of his platforms is designed for a high-intensity production environment, much like a plant data center, where everything will be monitored, the food will not need pesticides or chemicals, and production will be predictable 365 days a year. He is also creating shipping container-sized farms for small-scale local producers, such as corporate or school cafeterias, growing their own food. The smallest farm the group is working on fits on a table top and is designed as a hacker-friendly kit-of-parts meant to inspire a community of students, makers and at-home users to join in the next agricultural revolution.
Biologist Elaine Hsiao, research assistant professor at the California Institute of Technology, studies how the microbiome — the trillions of microbes and bacteria that live in and on our bodies, especially our gut — influences brain development and function, and behavior. Research conducted in animal models has shown that microbes are involved in regulating social, communicative, emotional and anxiety-like behaviors, and alterations in the composition of the microbiome are implicated in a variety of neurological disorders, including multiple sclerosis, depression and autism. Hsiao’s group studies the molecular interactions underlying how gut microbes communicate with the nervous system. The hope is that studying microbiome-nervous system interactions could reveal novel approaches for treating disorders such as depression or autism. Microbe-based therapeutics may one day enable persistent and relatively non-invasive treatments for various disorders of the brain and body.
Wildlife conservationist Onkuri Majumdar is committed to ending wildlife trafficking that is decimating species in her country, India, and the world. Wildlife trafficking is one of the world’s largest illegal trades, earning organized crime networks billions of dollars each year. India is a rich source for most species exploited by the trade. After drafting wildlife class action suits for the Supreme Court of India, training enforcement officials and conducting a tiger census, Majumdar expanded her work to Southeast Asia to better investigate global syndicates. As part of specialized teams focused on dismantling these syndicates, she was deputized by Thai police to go undercover, helping to arrest traffickers in tigers and exotic species. She provided analytic support in successful police operations against wildlife and human traffickers. Today, Majumdar is the managing director of Freeland India, which facilitates hands-on action against traffickers, conducts anti-poaching and investigation training for enforcement officers, and runs a wildlife law help center for prosecutors and investigators.
Following in his father’s footsteps, conservation ranger Innocent Mburanumwe, warden of the Southern Sector of Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), began working at the park 15 years ago. Virunga, Africa’s oldest national park and a World Heritage site, is home to the world’s last mountain gorillas. It is also Mburanumwe’s home. His career has focused on the protection of Congo’s mountain gorillas and commanding Virunga’s gorilla protection rangers, some 140 of whom have been killed in the line of duty during Mburanumwe’s career. The sacrifice of Virunga’s rangers has seen the gorilla population increase threefold in the past 20 years. Fulfilling his duties requires Mburanumwe to know every gorilla individually and to ensure that he and his fellow rangers monitor the animals every day. This enables Mburanumwe to detect the slightest change in the gorillas’ behavior that could signify disease or other forms of stress, which is the key to successfully protecting the gorillas. This conservation strategy has been maintained during periods of peace and armed conflict. Mburanumwe’s work and that of the other rangers was featured in the film “Virunga,” released last year.
Biophysicist Manu Prakash designs inexpensive scientific instruments that can spread science, appreciation of the microcosmos and medical opportunity around the world. He heads the Prakash Lab at Stanford University, where his team has designed Foldscope, a fully functional optical microscope that is printed and folded from a single flat sheet of paper, similar to origami, and a music box that doubles as a microfluidic lab. A Foldscope — made from die-cut paper embedded with micro-optics — costs less than a dollar to make. One of the goals when the lab was established was to enable “frugal science” — making available low-cost scientific tools to scientists, health care workers, even children, in the global community. One of Prakash’s visions for Foldscope is to get every child in the world to carry a microscope in their pocket so they can do things like test their own drinking water and look at their own cells. Last year, the first 50,000 units were built in the lab and shipped to 130 countries. Prakash, who earned a B.Tech. degree at the Indian Institute of Technology and a Ph.D. in applied physics at MIT, is an assistant professor at Stanford University. A nature lover, Prakash is currently a Pew scholar and studies biophysics of organisms.
Neuroscientist Steve Ramirez studies memory. As a Ph.D. student at MIT’s Brain and Cognitive Sciences Department, he is pursuing research into how memory works and how to “hijack memory and get it to do what we want it to do,” he says. The main focus of his work is finding brain cells that house a particular memory and then tricking those cells to turn on or off in response to pulses of light. Using mice as subjects, Ramirez and his team are also learning how to change the contents of memories, such as making a traumatic memory less fearful. This may lead to being able to erase unwanted memories or to create memories of things that never happened. Though seemingly the stuff of science fiction, this memory manipulation may one day be able to alleviate conditions such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, even Alzheimer’s. Ramirez’s fascination with how the brain works began as a teenager when his cousin went into labor, suffered a lack of oxygen and fell into a coma, from which she has never woken. This curiosity about how consciousness can be snuffed out by a damaged brain led to Ramirez’s career in neuroscience.
Biomedical engineer David Moinina Sengeh is a doctoral student at MIT, using magnetic resonance imaging, soft tissue modeling and 3-D printing to develop an innovative prosthetic socket to make artificial limbs more comfortable and more functional for amputees. He grew up in Sierra Leone where he was first motivated to develop better designed and more comfortable prostheses, especially for children living with amputations. He eventually realized that many amputees around the world did not use their prostheses because their sockets were badly designed and generally uncomfortable. The system he is pioneering allows for the development of a custom socket in a repeatable and quantitative process for an amputee. The prostheses can be produced quickly and at low cost, making them accessible for amputees across the globe. Sengeh is also president of a global organization, GMin, which inspires and supports the next generation of innovators in Africa to think creatively to solve problems and tackle challenges facing their communities. Additionally, he is the owner of a clothing design company, Nyali Clothing, which employs over 10 designers in Sierra Leone. And, last but not least, Sengeh is an afrobeat rapper.
Infectious disease ecologist Daniel Streicker studies the transfer of disease between bat species and from bats to humans and domestic animals. Last year, he was awarded the Science & SciLifeLab Prize for Young Scientists for his work on the transmission of the vampire bat rabies virus in Peru. Many pathogens of humans and animals come from other animal species — the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa likely originated from bats, and HIV was originally a virus from non-human primates — and Streicker’s research on cross-species disease transmission may help health care workers anticipate and prevent the next pandemic while also guiding control measures for diseases like rabies that recurrently jump from animals to people. Streicker strives to integrate his fieldwork data into the decisions of health policymakers by maximizing the visibility of his work through websites and blog posts and working directly with governmental partners in Peru. Streicker is a Wellcome Trust/Royal Society Sir Henry Dale Research Fellow, jointly hosted by the Institute of Biodiversity Animal Health and Comparative Medicine at the University of Glasgow and the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research in Scotland. He is also an adjunct graduate faculty member of the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia, where he earned his Ph.D.
Materials architect Skylar Tibbits is pioneering 4-D printing — multimaterial 3-D printing with the added element of transformation. At the Self-Assembly Lab at MIT, where Tibbits is director, he and a team of designers, scientists and engineers create innovative manufacturing, products and construction processes to investigate the possibility of creating objects that assemble themselves, that zip together like a strand of DNA or that have the ability for transformation embedded in them. They study how to program materials so they can change shape or property, build themselves or error correct. “The idea behind 4-D printing is that we try to add the element of time,” Tibbits says. “When we print things, they’re not finished. Rather, that’s the start of their life.” The objects reconfigure, adapt to their environment and transform over time, like strands that transform into text, sheets that can be shipped flat and then transform into 3-D objects, or surfaces that can mold into a desired shape. Tibbits’ team works with sportswear, automotive, furniture and other industries and is currently collaborating with Airbus on morphable components to control airflow to jet engines.
Using recycled cell phones, engineer, physicist and inventor Topher White has come up with an ingenious method of detecting illegal logging and poaching in remote rain forests. Deforestation is one of the main contributors to climate change and the extinction of endangered species. Interpol estimates 50 to 90 percent of rain forest logging is illegal. In 2012, White founded Rainforest Connection, which, according to the organization’s website, works to “transform recycled cell phones into autonomous, solar-powered listening devices that can monitor and pinpoint chainsaw activity at great distance, providing the world’s first audio-based logging detection system, pinpointing deforestation activity as it occurs and enabling real-time intervention.” The organization has helped stop illegal logging and poaching operations in Sumatra and is expanding its activities to rain forest reserves in Africa and Brazil. White, who has a B.A. in physics from Kenyon College, is currently working in Brazil, helping the indigenous Tembe people in the northern Amazonian state of Para monitor their lands to prevent poaching and illegal logging and settlement.
National Geographic’s Emerging Explorers are part of the Society’s Explorer Programs, which include National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence and National Geographic Fellows. More information on the 2015 Emerging Explorers can be found at http://www.nationalgeographic.com/emerging.
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NOTE: For images of the 2015 Emerging Explorers, visit http://Bit.ly/EmergingExplorers2015.