Becoming An Explorer

A child explores a creek near Germantown, Ohio. Credit: James Crotty

Remember when you were a kid? When any fireman or astronaut could visit the steps of your school or the pages of your books and convince you to dream big? 
A few weeks ago, the other National Geographic Education interns and I got to meet some amazing people who would turn out to be just that–people we wanted to be. It’s never too late in life to be amazed, nor is it ever too early to expand your dreams. We got to sit down with most of the National Geographic Emerging Explorers for a half-hour or more (distilled versions of those interviews will be available on in a few weeks). We also got to hear from some of the veteran Explorers and Fellows, who presented their research and updates from the field during the week long Explorers Symposium. We even got to see marine ecologist Enric Sala and filmmaker James Cameron earn the distinction of being named the newest Explorers in Residence. 
In this post, I’ve condensed some of the lessons we learned about explorers and exploring. It won’t tell you much about the explorers themselves (I’ve added links for that, and there’s always Google), but it will advise you on how to live the coolest life ever. 

Science, Academia, and Advocacy Don’t Conform to Stereotypes
You don’t have to live in a lab to do cutting edge research. Explorers like Kakani Katija dive out of the ivory tower, both by getting their feet wet (or muddy and blistered, in the case of John Fay), and by telling stories. During the Explorer Symposium, we couldn’t help but compare people to Jacques-Yves Cousteau (inventor of the scuba tank and, arguably, undersea exploration itself…you can see one of his films here). This is certainly true of Sylvia Earle (her eloquence, and diving!) and James Cameron (technical wizardry… and diving too), and I expect we’ll say same about Enric Sala someday. 
It’s about action, not just knowledge.  Barton Seavor is a chef, not a scientist, and one of the most inspiring foodie speakers I’ve ever seen. He’s a serious pragmatist, talking about how we can save fish…so that we can keep eating them! Oh, and then there’s Wade Davis, whom I mentioned earlier. He’s unapologetic, and really shook up the Symposium by making an aggressive attack on corporations and the planned destruction of sacred headwaters in British Columbia.
Enric Sala.jpg
Explorer in residence, Enric Sala. Photograph by Zafer Kizilkaya

You, yes you, can make your mark on the world and become part of the human conversation, through unpredictable and unprecedented ways. 
Wade Davis does it by telling stories (a bit of an understatement). T.H. Culhane does it by turning trash into energy. Sasha Kramer and Ashley Murray do it by recycling human waste. So how do we pursue meaningful careers?
“What I say to young people is that a career is not something you put on like a jacket. A career is something you build step by step, choice by choice. [And you want to] encourage a kid to be opportunistic, in the sense that they put themselves in the way of opportunity and always controlling the choices that they make so that they in the end become the architect of their own lives. 

“Because that is really the key to sanity in middle-age. You know, bitterness comes to those who wake up one day and realize that they have lived a life of decisions imposed upon them by others.”
– Dr. Wade Davis, Ethnobotanist and Resident Explorer
Meandering Career Paths
It’s okay to be a generalist. Even though most of the explorers have chosen a certain field (anthropology, biology, paleontology, etc.), we heard over and over again that many of our explorers were generalists within their fields. Take Jørn Hurum for example. He is a paleontologist (one who studies pre-historic life), but unlike most of his colleagues, he doesn’t specialize in a specific period or set of species. Instead, he considers himself a sort of generalist inside paleontology, studying ancient mammals alongside land dinosaurs and marine reptiles.
Or, specialize in a variety of different things. Even explorers like Kakani Katija, who specializes in biotechnology, have an interdisciplinary background. She holds degrees in astronautics, aeronautics, and biotechnology, an unlikely combination that prepared her perfectly for her current work on the fluid dynamics of marine life. To research fluid motion, she scuba-dives with jelly fish. 
You can learn more about National Geographic’s many grantees by visiting the Explorer website, and you can keep track of their adventures on Twitter. If you want to become a young explorer, look for mentors like Juan Martinez, apply for an explorer grant , and, of course, follow your dreams!
-Cedar Attanasio, for My Wonderful World
Thanks to Alison Enzinna, Slavisa Mijatovic, Mia Denardi, Winn Brewer, Thalassa Jones, and Johanna Taylor for their contributions to this post.

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