Erin Spencer was an undergraduate studying marine ecology when she got the news. Dizzy with excitement and ready to shout from the rooftops, Spencer ran to her mentor’s office.
“I burst in and told her I had gotten the Explorer grant,” Spencer says. “I mean, I assumed it would take multiple tries.”
At 19 years old, Spencer had become a National Geographer Explorer, a community whose ranks have also included Jane Goodall and Jacques Cousteau. Spencer had never before applied for a grant, but she learned about the Explorer grants a year prior at the National Geographic Explorer’s Festival—an annual event that brings together National Geographic-supported scientists, conservationists, explorers, and storytellers from around the world to share their discoveries, insights, and solutions for creating a more sustainable future.
While Goodall and Cousteau are among the most famous Explorers, thousands of others have received grants, too.
“I really credit that first grant from National Geographic to setting me on this track,” Spencer says.
Since its inception 130 years ago, the National Geographic Society has awarded more than 13,000 grants and supported the work of more than 3,000 explorers in the field.
Early career grants, like the one Spencer received, are often the primary entry point for those eager to establish an initial affiliation with the National Geographic Society, says Alex Moen, vice president of Explorer Programs.
Moen, who has been at the Society for 17 years, oversees the team dedicated to identifying and supporting the Explorer community. Being an Explorer isn’t a staff position within the Society; rather, being an Explorer is an opportunity to pursue projects and fieldwork with Society funding, training, and resources, and to join a community of like-minded people. The Explorer community is comprised of conservationists, scientists, storytellers, educations, and technologists—a group Moen collectively calls change-makers.
Being a National Geographic Explorer is about more than just engaging in exploration for the sake of exploration or for conquering the unknown: It’s about embarking on exploration with a purpose.
“There is a broad spectrum of opportunity for people to engage, but I think fundamental [to becoming an Explorer] is having this kind of passion to learn, to understand, to know, and to share,” Moen explains.
Additionally, being an Explorer often comes with a drive to protect—people, planet, wildlife. “I think it’s these traits or mindset that National Geographic Explorers all have. It makes them part of this team,” Moen says.
Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka’s mission to protect wildlife, particularly the critically endangered mountain gorilla, is what led this Uganda-based veterinarian to become one of the newest members of the National Geographic Explorer team.
The 48-year-old is the founder and CEO of Conservation Through Public Health, a grassroots NGO and U.S. nonprofit that sits at the intersection of wildlife conservation and public health in communities around Africa’s protected areas, particularly Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, where an estimated half of the world’s critically endangered mountain gorillas live.
For the past six months, Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka and her team have used the funding from the Society to expand CTPH’s integrated gorilla and human-health initiatives to new areas around Bwindi Impenetrable National Park marked with high human and gorilla conflict.
“Being part of the [Explorer] community is... helping me to pursue my passion of discovering new things about gorillas and other wildlife and implementing conservation initiatives with local communities that help to ensure a better future for the critically endangered mountain gorillas,” Dr. Kalema-Zikusoka says.
In addition to that, the Society’s Explorer program provides Kalema-Zikusoka and her team with additional tools to conduct their work, including cameras or educational opportunities to connect with other Explorers and communicate their work more effectively.
Educational support, skill development, and career growth is a big part of the Explorer experience, Moen says.
“It is not just about bringing people in and giving them a title as a National Geographic Explorer,” Moen says. “What we also want to do is provide them with tools and skills that help them develop as leaders. How do we provide them not just with resources or funding, but how do we give them training in the areas of storytelling, conservation, and other skills?”
Being an Explorer means being empowered—through science storytelling bootcamps, mentorship, engaging in the Explorer community, and access to tools and technology.
For Spencer, getting that first grant in 2012 was the catalyst for pursuing her life’s calling.
“I always liked science and I thought it would be part of my job, but never thought I would become a scientist,” Spencer says. “Becoming an explorer made me realize how much I just love the investigating and the research side [of science].”
Six years later, Spencer is now a graduate student at UNC Chapel Hill, where she studies marine ecology. She recently received a third grant from the National Geographic Society to investigate whether there is a regional trend in seafood mislabeling along the Atlantic Coast. As part of her work, Spencer travels from North Carolina to Florida, collecting seafood from sushi shops, supermarkets, and restaurants that is labeled as red snapper.
Her ultimate goal is to provide consumers with tools and best practices to avoid seafood mislabeling and to raise awareness about the problem.
In the process of collecting and testing DNA samples, Spencer is learning a few new ways to cook the fish that’s left over from her research. “I have about six pounds of frozen fish in my freezer right now,” she says, laughing—and she has National Geographic to thank for that.