Explorers Festival

2015 Emerging Explorers

Meet the 2015 Emerging Explorers

National Geographic’s Emerging Explorers Program recognizes and supports uniquely gifted and inspiring scientists, conservationists, storytellers, and innovators—explorers who are already making a difference early in their careers. To help the emerging explorers realize their potential, National Geographic awards each of them $10,000 for research and exploration.


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Salam Al Kuntar
Salam Al Kuntar
 
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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, 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, is now a research scholar at the Penn Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, where she works with a range of people and institutions to protect Syria’s cultural heritage. In collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution and by working with a network of Syrian scholars in Europe and a dedicated group of heritage professionals inside Syria, she 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. Al Kuntar is a 2015 National Geographic Emerging Explorer.

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Ella Al-Shamahi
Ella Al-Shamahi
 
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Ella Al-Shamahi is a paleoanthropologist and archaeologist who specializes in Neanderthals, searching for fossils in caves in disputed, hostile, and unstable territories, and a stand-up comic. She has worked in the Nagorno-Karabakh, Iraq, and Yemen; the latter is her main focus for fieldwork as she is 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.

The recent outbreak of war has scaled back her Yemeni fieldwork, forcing her to prospect in other disputed places. It has also resulted in little-reported, wide-scale destruction to Yemeni heritage including Yemen’s World Heritage Sites, which she is currently trying to highlight.

Ella uses comedy as a coping strategy for the darker side of her work and as a way to communicate science. She feels that science has a communication problem and that comedy is part of the solution. She performs stand-up as well as science stand-up internationally and has taken three shows up to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland. Ella is currently filming a two-part BBC/PBS/Wellcome Trust documentary with actor Andy Serkis, which aims to “re-brand” the Neanderthals. She is also undertaking her Ph.D. in rates of evolution in Neanderthals and holds degrees from Imperial College London/Natural History Museum in London and University College London. Ella is a 2015 National Geographic Emerging Explorer.

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Jessica Cramp
Jessica Cramp
 
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Jess Cramp is an American shark researcher and marine conservationist. She is passionate about stopping the overexploitation of sharks and the degradation of the ocean—and believes that fostering a lasting impact requires a comprehensive approach and local buy-in. Because of this, Cramp prioritizes listening to local perspectives, while actively engaging community members, community leaders and government officials in her research and advocacy efforts. In 2011, while living in the Cook Islands, she co-championed a grassroots campaign that resulted in the two million square kilometer Cook Islands Shark Sanctuary. Cramp is currently pursuing a Ph.D. through James Cook University while residing in the Cook Islands. She is studying the effectiveness of large-scale marine reserves on wide-ranging sharks. She also advises national governments, foundations and NGOs in marine reserve and fisheries policy in the Pacific and is the founder of Sharks Pacific—a nonprofit organization dedicated to shark and fisheries research, outreach, education and advocacy. Cramp is a 2015 National Geographic Emerging Explorer.

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Leslie Dewan
Leslie Dewan
 
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A National Geographic Emerging Explorer, Dr. Leslie Dewan is co-founder and chief executive officer of Transatomic Power, a nuclear reactor design company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is developing the next generation of sustainable nuclear power plants. She received her Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from MIT in 2013, with a research focus on computational nuclear materials. She also holds B.Sc. degrees from MIT in mechanical engineering and nuclear engineering. Before starting her Ph.D., she worked for a robotics company in Cambridge, where she designed search-and-rescue robots and equipment for in-field identification of chemical and nuclear weapons.

Leslie has been awarded an MIT Presidential Fellowship and a Department of Energy Computational Science Graduate Fellowship. She is a member of the MIT Corporation, MIT’s board of trustees. She was named a Time magazine “30 People Under 30 Changing the World,” an MIT Technology Review “Innovator Under 35,” a Forbes “30 Under 30” honoree, and a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader.  

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Caleb Harper
Caleb Harper
 
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Caleb Harper is the Principal Scientist and Director of the Open Agriculture (OpenAG) Initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab. He leads a diverse group of engineers, architects, and scientists in the exploration and development of future food systems. Harper’s research focuses on the areas of control environment design, actuated sensing, control automation, and data-driven resource, energy, and biologic optimization. His group, together with strategic partners, is developing open-source agricultural hardware, software, and data with the goal of creating a more agile, responsive, and collaborative food system.

Harper is a member of the World Economic Forum New Vision for Agriculture Transformation Leaders Network. His work has been featured by National Geographic, Time, Wired, The Economist, Smithsonian, Popular Science, and TED.

Prior to joining the Media Lab in 2011, Caleb worked professionally as an architect designing and developing data centers, healthcare, and semiconductor fabrication facilities. He has consulted with multiple international development agencies, including USAID, World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, and the Delhi Development Authority on high-density urban development projects.

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Elaine Hsiao
Elaine Hsiao
 
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Bugs are not things that interest most of us. But for Elaine Hsiao, a microbiologist at Caltech, they are an endless source of fascination and a possible key to revolutionary new health therapies. Speaking from her lab at Caltech, Hsiao explains how the gut and the brain are intimately connected through microbes, how microbes affect our immune systems, and how one day they might be engineered to treat psychological disorders like depression and autism. Back
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Innocent Mburanumwe
Innocent Mburanumwe
 
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Founded in 1925, Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has been called the jewel in the crown of Africa's nature reserves. Inside its boundaries live some of the world's last mountain gorillas where they face many threats, above all from poachers. Protecting them is also fraught with danger. So far, 140 rangers have been murdered. But this hasn't deterred Innocent Mburanumwe, warden of the Southern Sector at Virunga, from fighting on the front line to protect one of the world's rarest creatures. Talking on a very poor Skype connection from Rumangabo in the DRC, Mburanumwe recalls learning about gorillas at his father's knee and explains how he is now teaching his own children. He also discusses the dangers he faces in the forest and why it is so important to protect mountain gorillas. Back
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Onkuri Majumdar
Onkuri Majumdar
 
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Growing up in India, Onkuri Majumdar discovered her love of animals and has now devoted her life to prevent the trafficking that is decimating numerous species across Southeast Asia. The organization she works for, Freeland India, covers all aspects of the trade, from sting operations and arrests to legal training for enforcement officers and education campaigns. Speaking from her office in Delhi, Majumdar explains the connection between wildlife trafficking and other forms of organized crime; the importance of strong laws and stiffer sentences; and why the plight of animals means so much to her. Back
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David Sengeh
David Sengeh
 
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David Moinina Sengeh is a Renaissance man. He is president of a global charity, a clothing entrepreneur, and a rapper. As a doctoral student at MIT, he is using MRI and 3-D printing to develop the next generation of prosthetic sockets and wearable mechanical interfaces. Speaking from Boston, he talks about how the civil war in Sierra Leone inspired him to get involved in children's issues; why conventional prostheses are so uncomfortable; and how his organization helped keep children learning during the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Back
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Manu Prakash
Manu Prakash
 
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As a child in India, Manu Prakash spent hours in an abandoned chemistry lab, tinkering with radios or making his own fireworks. One day, he stole his brother's glasses and used the lenses to build a crude microscope. It didn't work. But a seed was planted. Today, as head of his own lab at Stanford University, he has created a revolutionary device called the Foldscope: a microscope made of paper. Prakash was awarded a prestigious 2016 MacArthur Fellowship, known as a "genius" grant, for his work. Speaking previously from Stanford, he explains his vision for "frugal science," why empathy is crucial for a scientist and knowing what you don't know is as important as what you do know, and how he hopes to put a Foldscope in the pocket of every child in the world. Back
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Steve Ramirez
Steve Ramirez
 
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Steve Ramirez is a Junior Fellow and Principal Investigator at Harvard University, and an assistant professor at Boston University. He received his B.A. in neuroscience from Boston University where he began researching learning and memory. He went on to receive his Ph.D. in neuroscience at MIT, where his work focused on artificially modulating memories in the rodent brain, and his current work focuses on leveraging these manipulations to alleviate symptoms associated with psychiatric diseases. For his work, which has been published in Science and Nature, Steve has received the Smithsonian’s American Ingenuity award, National Geographic’s Breakthrough Explorer prize, Forbes and Technology Review’s Top 35 Innovators Under 35 award, and has given a TED talk.

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Daniel Streicker
Daniel Streicker
 
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Daniel Streicker's work on cross-species transmission of disease may help us anticipate and prevent the next pandemic. Armed with a headlamp and a net, Streicker—who was awarded the Science and SciLifeLab Prize for Young Scientists in 2013 for his work on the transmission of the vampire bat rabies virus in Peru—spends much of his time in the Amazon, negotiating mudslides or political instability. Talking from his lab in Glasgow, Scotland, he describes how early fieldwork in Virginia set him on a path to studying bats, why deforestation can bring humans into contact with emerging pathogens, and how data gathered in the field can influence health policymakers. Back
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Skylar Tibbits
Skylar Tibbits
 
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Skylar Tibbits is the founder and co-director of the Self-Assembly Lab housed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) International Design Center. The Self-Assembly Lab focuses on self-assembly and programmable material technologies for novel manufacturing, products, and construction processes.

His invention of 4D printing has established a unique area of design research focused on programmable materials that can sense and actuate in response to internal or external stimuli. His work on self-assembly has demonstrated the scalability of this natural construction phenomenon with synthetic design and fabrication systems. The research is the first to apply the principles of self-assembly to construction and manufacturing: for example, a cell phone that can build itself, a chair that self-assembles, and the self-construction of aerial balloons.

Skylar is an assistant professor of Design Research in the Department of Architecture at MIT where he teaches graduate and undergraduate design studios and co-teaches “How to Make (Almost) Anything,” a seminar at MIT's Media Lab with Neil Gershenfeld. Skylar is also the Editor-In-Chief of the 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing Journal and the founder of SJET LLC, a small multi-disciplinary design practice.

Skylar has a Professional Degree in Architecture and minor in experimental computation from Philadelphia University. Continuing his education at MIT, he received a masters of science in Design Computation and a masters of science in Computer Science under the guidance of Patrick Winston, Terry Knight, Erik Demaine, and Neil Gershenfeld.

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Topher White
Topher White
 
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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. White is a 2015 National Geographic Emerging Explorer.

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