National Geographic Young Explorers Grant Workshop at McGill

Today I went to a workshop held by National Geographic at McGill about their Young Explorers grant program. Rolled out in 2006, the program has so far sponsored more than 200 researchers, journalists, and adventurers with nearly a million dollars.

National Geographic had brought three of their previous grantees to present their work. Andrea Reid talked about her research on Nile perch in Lake Victoria, an invasive predator that has been described as “Darwin’s Nightmare” for its consequences for other species. Becca Skinner should photos from a project in which she tried to trace the locations of pictures taken in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami in Aceh five years after the catastrophe.

I particularly loved the story of Amy Higgins. After graduating witha B.Sc. in Biology, she was working as a school teacher in the Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmere when she heard a ‘myth’ about artificial glaciers. Being an avid hiker, she organised a school trip to the remote area and indeed found artificially created frozen lakes.

The artificial glaciers were built by Chewang Norphel, a retired Kashmeri engineer. Amy took the opportunity to intern with Mr. Norphel and started to learn from him. On creating artificial glaciers, she says it is “like building an ice skating rink in your backyard.”

With the help of two consecutive National Geographic Young Explorer grants, Amy started researching the impacts of the artificial glaciers on local agriculture. They are used to store water for irrigation, which is otherwise scarce in the region. In the Master’s thesis she just completed at Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Amy reports that Mr. Norphel’s constructions add 20 to 40 additional days of irrigation and allow farmers to switch from growing barley to more profitable crops such as peas.

I loved Amy’s story because it’s a tale of immense serendipity, although guided by her obvious curiosity and enthusiasm. Very, very cool.

The other speakers National Geographic had brought in included Environmental Anthropologist Kenny Broad, who was immensely funny in one moment (“… if all else fails, go to Burning Man. […] If Burning Man fails, go surfing.”), only to talk of the dangers of field research and the friends he has lost to explorations a minute later.

The day was concluded by breakout sessions. In small groups, we could pitch our own project ideas to the old hands (I ended up with National Geographic’s Chris Thornton, who did an amazing job giving feedback, and Amy Higgins). There were a ton of really cool projects in my group – on the role of music in the identity of Sahrawi refugees in Western Algeria or lessons for conservation to be learned from the Canada’s indigenous people, to name just two.

I can only encourage everybody who is working in a field science to have a look at Natural Geographic’s Young Explorers program. A grant of up to 5,000 US$ is available for applicants between 18 and 25 years of age. There are three sources of funding available for different projects:

  1. The Committee for Research and Exploration funds scientific field research. Applicants may come from disciplines such as Geography and Biology, but also Anthropology.
  2. The Expeditions Council supports “explorations with story potential”. While these projects may have a scientific component, they should yield material for Natural Geographic’s many publications.
  3. The Conservation Trust funds on-the-ground conservation action. The emphasis of this program – the smallest of the three – lies heavily on innovative methods.

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