Adventurers of the Year 2007

Colleen Hardy: Mortal Hero

At first glance, it's hard to picture Colleen Hardy in a disaster zone. From her wide smile and kind eyes, you'd never guess that the 40-year-old field epidemiologist spent seven weeks last spring tearing down dirt tracks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, dodging Mai Mai rebels and crooked cops, and visiting as many forgotten villages as she could. Her grim goal: to ascertain the death rate in one of the world's most dangerous countries.

As an employee of the International Rescue Committee, Hardy helped pioneer the field of mortality surveys, what she calls "the bridge between the people who are suffering and the outside world." In 1998 she visited the DRC for the first time to gather data and collect people's stories, then returned once more in 2002. When her mortality survey came out, it proved that the Congolese civil war was the deadliest conflict since World War II, taking more than 3.9 million lives at a rate equivalent to a 9/11 attack every three days. "Yet," Hardy says, "it hardly made the news."

It does now. In the years since, partly because of her refusal to quit, humanitarian aid to the Congo has jumped by 500 percent, American aid has increased 25-fold, and similar surveys have emerged as critical tools for humanitarian groups worldwide. Hardy's report from this spring, published in November, is again expected to drive much-needed funds to the DRC. "If we didn't do this work," she says, "no one would know what was happening." For Hardy, that's not an option.