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14 Scientists and Activists Who Are Changing the World

Molecular biologist Beth Shapiro
Molecular biologist Beth Shapiro

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STEVE EMBER: I’m Steve Ember.

BARBARA KLEIN: And I’m Barbara Klein with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English. Once a year, the National Geographic Society honors a group of scientists, activists, wildlife experts and artists for their work as explorers and thinkers. Honorees receive a ten thousand dollar award to help them continue their research and projects. Today we tell about this year’s fourteen Emerging Explorers and talk to two of them.


STEVE EMBER: Three of this year’s Emerging Explorers study the ancient past.

BETH SHAPIRO: “I am interested to understand why some animals went extinct and others animals didn’t at the end of the last Ice Age.”

That is Beth Shapiro, a molecular biologist at Pennsylvania State University. She studies the genetic information found in the remains of ancient animals in order to learn about the climate and environment of long ago.

Beth Shapiro takes pieces of ancient bones, teeth and hair found mostly in the high Arctic area. Then, she studies the DNA in these samples to learn how animal populations have grown and shrunk over the last hundred thousand years. Her findings help show how evolution takes place over time and in an area.

This DNA testing is helping to change long held theories about animals such as the bison.

BETH SHAPIRO: “We were interested in bison because we know that today bison have almost no genetic diversity at all. And we suspected that this was because when Europeans first arrived in North America they killed almost all of the bison.”

Her team found unexpected results -- that the bison had been losing its genetic differences long before Europeans arrived on the continent.

BETH SHAPIRO: “We found that bison population began to shrink and get smaller and smaller in size and in genetic diversity about ten thousand years before the Ice Age even started. And this means that there is something much more complicated going on with these large mammal populations.”

BARBARA KLEIN: Christine Lee combines biology and archeology. She studies the remains of humans to learn about different ancient cultures in China.

She says studying ancient bones can tell about a population’s background, movement, and even about marriages between different groups. For example, a tooth can tell about an individual’s diet and social level. Comparing teeth across an area can show genetic links between populations.

STEVE EMBER: Paleontologist Bolortsetseg Minjin studies the ancient remains of dinosaurs in her native Mongolia. She has also started programs to get a new generation of Mongolian students interested in paleontology.

She says she would like to help create a dinosaur museum in Mongolia that would house the country’s rich collection of ancient creatures.


BARBARA KLEIN: Several Emerging Explorers work with animals and protecting natural areas. Emma Stokes works with organizations, governments and companies to help study and protect animals that are in danger of disappearing. Her research in Asia with the Wildlife Conservation Society is helping to identify the most effective ways to protect the tiger and its natural environment.

STEVE EMBER: Biologist Aparajita Datta works in the forests of India’s Arunachal Pradesh area. She has been studying the Namdapha National Park for more than ten years. She says the area has five hundred kinds of mammals and more than one thousand different kinds of plants.

The Lisu tribal group also lives in this area. Aparajita Datta helped create a program to reduce hunting and plant destruction. It helps the Lisu grow food, open schools and earn money in ways that do not harm the environment.

BARBARA KLEIN: Jose Urteaga leads a program in Nicaragua to protect the sea turtle. He works to stop local communities from hunting the turtle by showing other ways they can earn money. His program also helps educate children about the importance of protecting these ancient creatures.

Zoltan Takacs, Herpetologist and Toxinologist
Zoltan Takacs, Herpetologist and Toxinologist

STEVE EMBER: Zoltan Takacs has traveled all over the world studying snakes and the poisons they produce. He gathers DNA from snakes to learn which molecules protect them from their own poison. Some poisons these animals use to kill contain valuable chemicals that have been made into medicines. But studying these poisons and how they might be useful in fighting disease is extremely hard and slow work. Mr. Takacs works with a team of researchers at the University of Chicago. They have created a technology that helps organize information about snake poisons so it will be easier to study their possible use as cures.


BARBARA KLEIN: Several National Geographic Emerging Explorers are technology experts. Ken Banks was working on a project in Africa. He saw a need for a kind of technology that would permit people in rural areas to communicate to groups without the use of the Internet. He knew that many organizations in rural areas did not have an Internet connection. He knew they needed a communication method that was easy and low cost. So, he developed a computer program that permits people to send information to groups using text messages on wireless telephones. He made his FrontlineSMS program free so that anyone can use it.

KEN BANKS: “We are always trying to lower the barrier to entry for nonprofits. So we are trying to use mobile technology. So we are always trying to keep the solutions simple and solutions which actually make use of the technology that is most easily available to those organizations.”

BARBARA KLEIN: His technology is now being used in more than fifty countries by people including doctors, activists, farmers and aid workers. Ken Banks’ Kiwanja organization is working on other projects to empower and educate non-profits around the world.

STEVE EMBER: Aydogan Ozcan is also interested in the power of the wireless telephone. He and a team of researchers have developed a way to use wireless telephones to bring medical help to poor people in rural areas. His phones have special cameras. Medical workers in rural areas can use the phone to take pictures of a patient’s blood samples. They can then send the images to a hospital where doctors can tell what is wrong with the patient.

Testing of this technology will begin with patients who may have malaria.

Albert Yu-Min Lin, Research Scientist and Engineer
Albert Yu-Min Lin, Research Scientist and Engineer

BARBARA KLEIN: Albert Yu-Min Lin uses computer technologies to gather and organize information taken from underground sensors and satellite images of Earth. This information is combined to create three-dimensional images that help him do archeological explorations.

Mr. Lin says he can then investigate the computer images of an archeological area without actually being at the physical place. He says this technology is helping experts explore places that would otherwise be impossible to investigate because of political, cultural or environmental barriers.


STEVE EMBER: Jerry Glover and Saleem Ali work in different fields. But both pay careful attention to how human relationships are linked to the environment. Jerry Glover studies agriculture, the environment and food security. He says in the past, humans lived from crops that were perennials.

These kinds of plants stay alive throughout the year. They make effective use of water and nutrients. As populations grew, humans started planting crops every year that require fertilizers, insecticides and water. He says these annuals also require more time, effort and money to grow.

Jerry Glover says it is time to put natural plant communities back in control of our land. Through his work at the Land Institute in Kansas, he is working with plant experts and scientists to develop perennial crops. These crops would revolutionize agriculture by increasing food production while also supporting a healthier environment.

BARBARA KLEIN: Saleem Ali is an expert on environmental conflicts and how to solve them. He acts as a negotiator for governments, companies and native communities when dealing with environmental problems.

He says that working together to save the environment can sometimes bring conflicting sides together around the shared goal of protecting resources.

STEVE EMBER: Our last two National Geographic explorers are activists in Africa. Kakenya Ntaiya grew up in an extremely poor family in Kenya. Like other girls in her village, she was expected to end her schooling and marry at the age of thirteen. But she decided this future was not for her.

She worked hard to continue her studies and is completing her doctorate degree in the United States. She has opened a girl’s school in her village so that others can have an education and the chance for a better future.

Feliciano dos Santos, Musician and Activist
Feliciano dos Santos, Musician and Activist

BARBARA KLEIN: We close with music by the performer and activist Feliciano dos Santos from Mozambique. He uses his fame as a musician in the band Massukos.

He spreads health information that will improve the lives of poor people in rural areas around his country. He has helped communicate the importance of washing hands, boiling water, and building toilets in order to prevent disease.


STEVE EMBER: This program was written and produced by Dana Demange. I’m Steve Ember.

BARBARA KLEIN: And I’m Barbara Klein. You can comment on this story at Join us again next week for EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.