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Fourteen Scientists and Activists Who Are Changing the World

Planetary scientist and astrobiologist Kevin Hand
Planetary scientist and astrobiologist Kevin Hand

STEVE EMBER: I’m Steve Ember.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: And I’m Shirley Griffith with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English. Every year, the National Geographic Society honors scientists, wildlife experts and others for their work. Each honoree receives a ten thousand dollar award to help them with their research and future projects. This week we learn about the latest National Geographic Emerging Explorers.


STEVE EMBER: One of the honorees is searching for life in faraway places.

KEVIN HAND: “The big picture for me and many of my colleagues is the search for life beyond Earth. So if we’ve learned anything about life here on Earth, it’s that in general where you find the liquid water, you find life.”

STEVE EMBER: That is Kevin Hand, a planetary scientist and astrobiologist who works at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. This lab works with the American space agency on projects including looking for life in outer space. Kevin Hand is assiting with plans to send an orbital device to Europa, a moon of the planet Jupiter. Space agency officials hope to launch the device in about twenty-twenty.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Europa is covered in ice. Under the ice are deep oceans, which could be home to living organisms. However, this moon is not easy to explore. Depending on its orbit, Europa can be over nine hundred million kilometers from Earth. Its environment is freezing, with intense radiation and no atmosphere.

Jupiter's moon Europa has a surface made up of blocks, which are thought to have broken apart into new positions, as shown in the image on the left
Jupiter's moon Europa has a surface made up of blocks, which are thought to have broken apart into new positions, as shown in the image on the left

KEVIN HAND: “And when it comes to actually searching for this life, that’s a great challenge. We send these robots off as our little planetary emissaries to go and do the science. These robots basically have to take the scientific laboratory with them so they can do the experiments and chemical analysis on the planets.”

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Kevin Hand and coworker Robert Carlson have recreated an environment like Europa in a laboratory to study its conditions. Mister Hand also has visited extreme places on Earth to see how organisms survive in cold climates. This could help experts know what to look for when looking for possible life forms on Europa.


STEVE EMBER: The work of several Emerging Explorers aims to improve the lives of people in different ways. Juan Martinez grew up in poverty in the city of Los Angeles. In high school, he won a trip to learn about nature in the Teton Science Schools program in Wyoming. He says experiencing the wilderness and mountains changed his life.

Today, Mister Martinez campaigns to get young people, especially at-risk youth, interested in nature and the outdoors. He works with groups like the Sierra Club to get young people interested in the environment. And, he heads the Natural Leaders Network of the Children and Nature Network. The group creates links between environmental organizations, businesses, government and individuals to connect children with nature.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Jennifer Burney is an environmental scientist. She has studied links between climate change, food production and food security. She is especially interested in how people can use new technologies to create a better, more sustainable food system.

One of her projects is in northern Benin. She has worked with the Solar Electric Light Fund to build a water supply system for farming. Energy from the sun provides power for the project.

Environmental scientist Jennifer Burney
Environmental scientist Jennifer Burney

JENNIFER BURNEY: “This system enables farmers to cultivate vegetables year around and to cultivate new types of crops and to generally increase the area that they cultivate so they have much more food for their home consumption but are also able to sell a large majority of it and earn income that way.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Jennifer Burney also works with a group in India. They are studying the effects of replacing traditional cook stoves with safer, more environmentally-friendly cooking technologies. Traditional cook stoves produce a harmful black smoke.

JENNIFER BURNEY: “We know that it is a component of particulate matter which makes people sick, but it’s also a very potent climate warming agent.”

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Miz Burney says replacing old stoves with safer ones could have a huge effect on improving human health and slowing climate change.

STEVE EMBER: Palestinian Aziz Abu Sarah is a cultural educator who grew up in Jerusalem. After his brother was jailed and killed, Mister Abu Sarah was filled with hatred and publicly acted out his anger. He refused to learn Hebrew, which he considered the language of his enemy. But he knew he would have to learn the language to go to college and get a good job in Jerusalem. In Hebrew class, he met Jewish men and women who were not soldiers with guns. He learned they were human beings, just like he is.

Aziz Abu Sarah has spent his career working to break down emotional barriers between Arabs and Jews. In the United States, he helps lead the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University. He also created a travel company that helps bring people to the Middle East for multicultural visits.


SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Two Emerging Explorers are working to turn waste into a valuable resource. Ecologist Sasha Kramer is helping to fight poverty in Haiti. She also is working to solve one of the country’s environmental problems. Living in Haiti, Sasha Kramer learned that only sixteen percent of Haitians had access to toilets. Many people throw out bodily waste in the ocean, rivers, and empty areas. She helped create a non-profit organization that helps turn waste into fertilizer. This fertilizer helps improve the quality of Haiti’s soil. And it helps poor farmers increase their harvests.

STEVE EMBER: Ashley Murray is a wastewater engineer living in Ghana. She is working to persuade governments that turning wastewater into clean water can be profitable. She says the profits made from reusing waste could change waste treatment systems and health around the world.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Several of the Emerging Explorers are working to protect and explore undeveloped areas.

Ecologist Paula Kahumbu heads an organization called WildlifeDirect, which has offices in Kenya and the United States. The organization’s website describes over one hundred conservation projects. The goal of WildlifeDirect is to connect scientists working to protect the environment with people who want to help. The group also helps spread information quickly to raise support during environmental crises.

STEVE EMBER: Tuy Sereivathana is working to save endangered elephants in Cambodia. Up until now, many Cambodians have hunted elephants to protect their land and crops. Tuy Sereivathana works with Cambodians to educate rural populations on how to be successful farmers without harming the animals and the areas where they live. The National Geographic Society says his program has been very successful. But he says there is still much work to be done in getting government and developers to support growth that does not harm the environment.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Adrian Seymour is an ecologist and filmmaker. He studies the Indonesian population of a small meat-eating creature called the Malay civet. He says studying creatures at the top of the food chain can help explain what is happening in the whole ecosystem. He also makes movies about human issues linked to environmental efforts.

STEVE EMBER: Four Emerging Explorers study creatures. Çağan Şekercioğlu is a biology professor at the University of Utah. The Turkish native has studied the effects of environmental pressures on decreasing bird populations. He helps to show people how important birds are for health, farming, and the environment.

Jorn Hurum studies the ancient fossil remains of animals in northern Norway. He and his team have found important fossils of sea reptiles, including several huge creatures that once stood over fifteen meters tall. In Germany, he helped unearth a forty seven million year old fossil of a primate. Jorn Hurum feels strongly about making his scientific publications available free of cost so that this knowledge can be seen by everyone.

Dino Martins is a scientist who studies insects. He studies environments in which bees and other pollinating insects are threatened. He helps educate farmers and others in east Africa about the importance of these insects in food production and how they can be protected.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Kakani Katija is a bioengineer who studies the power sources responsible for the ocean’s movements. Winds and tides drive the oceans, but so do the movements of swimming animals. Her research shows that the movement of sea creatures has a big effect on climate systems by continuously mixing the seawater. Mixing the water moves oxygen and nutrients from one layer of water to another.

We close this program with Hayat Sindi, a Saudi-born health technology expert. She is helping to spread the use of a low-cost, paper device that can help people in poor, rural areas to find disease. The device is the size of a postage stamp. It is being used to help people learn if they have health problems like liver damage. The device quickly provides important information to people in areas without medical workers or a laboratory. The National Geographic Society says the device she and her team developed holds promise to be an invention that will save millions of lives.


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

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: And I’m Shirley Griffith. Join us again next week for EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.