Photograph by Theodore Kaye
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Using materials made from trash, like the reprocessed plastic bottles pictured here, Arthur Huang creates lighter, stronger, and more sustainable designs, from electronics to buildings.
Photograph by Theodore Kaye
MagazineFrom the Field

Leading the Way: Meet the Next Generation of Explorers

Scientists, conservationists, storytellers, and innovators—National Geographic’s newly announced emerging explorers are making discoveries that will change the world. We’ll follow their progress over the coming year.

Arthur Huang Architect and engineer

Arthur Huang’s dreams are made of garbage. His latest? “A piece of trash that’s going to fly,” he says.

Huang’s dreams tend to become reality. This one is parked in his company’s top-floor office in Taiwan, and it’s called the EcoFighter—a two-seated aircraft with wings made of the material from recycled plastic bottles.

As a young architecture student, Huang grew disillusioned that despite all the talk of “going green,” it seemed no one was producing 100 percent sustainable materials. He decided to invent them himself. It wasn’t easy. He had to build his own manufacturing machinery, because the recycled materials broke existing equipment. But now his firm, Miniwiz, which he founded in 2005, transforms discarded plastic, clothing, and rice fiber into useful and beautiful things. Huang has opened “trash concept” stores for Nike, built a nine-story pavilion in Taipei, and collaborated with Italian furniture designers to re-create their classic pieces using boards made from cigarette butts. “We’re trying to sell the trash back to the people who produce it,” he explains.

Few have followed suit. “Our biggest problem right now is a lack of competitors,” Huang says. But his next dream may change that: Miniwiz will put its designs online so that entrepreneurs can build and sell their own unique products. “If trash can fly,” he says, “why can’t you make it into a shelf or clothes?

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Thandiwe Mweetwa measures a sedated lion in Zambia. She’s pushing for full monitoring of lion trophy hunting, which is likely to resume this year.

Thandiwe Mweetwa Lion biologist

Conservationist Thandiwe Mweetwa knows that while driving on patrol in the Zambian grasslands she is “just another car” to the young lioness with an abnormally shaped ear. But she still feels a bond with the animal. Five years ago the 28-year-old biologist and her team at the Zambian Carnivore Programme rescued the big cat from a poacher’s snare. Mweetwa has since watched her recover and raise three cubs.

Growing up in the wildlife-rich Luangwa Valley, Mweetwa was awed by the animals roaming near her village. When her school’s conservation club preached the importance of protecting them, her path was set. Now Mweetwa collars and tracks lions, leopards, hyenas, and wild dogs. The work is dangerous, but not only because she handles wildlife: “There are a lot of precautions you can take to make sure things go OK,” she says. “It’s the poachers I’m worried about.” In parts of Zambia, armed poachers shoot at both wild animals and their guardians.

Mweetwa’s biggest impact may be felt in the relative safety of a classroom. To combat poaching before it begins, Mweetwa plans to go into more schools and ask students to join her in promoting conservation over extermination.

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Wasfia Nazreen holds the Bangladeshi flag atop Denali, North America’s tallest mountain. She has climbed every continent’s highest peak.

Wasfia Nazreen Mountaineer, activist, and educator

When Wasfia Nazreen reached the summit of Mount Everest in 2012, she took out her satellite phone and called her mom in Bangladesh. It was a turning point for Nazreen, who would descend from the top of the world to international acclaim and, finally, acceptance from her family. Her mother had abandoned her when she was 11. By the time they reconnected almost two decades later, Nazreen had become an outspoken gender activist and mountaineer. Her family did not approve, but after Everest their shame turned to pride. “If I’d known this, I probably would have strategized climbing mountains before,” she says, laughing.

Nazreen describes herself as “the odd one out” at home in Bangladesh. She went to the U.S. at age 17 on a full college scholarship and then to India, where she worked with Tibetan refugees and discovered a passion for mountain climbing. In 2011, two years after returning to Bangladesh, she announced a plan to summit the highest peak on each of the seven continents. Timed to the 40th anniversary of Bangladeshi independence, her goal was a celebration of progress for women. But she discovered there was still work to do when her critics mounted attacks: “They didn’t want to see a woman on top,” she says. “Literally.”

In November 2015 she planted the Bangladeshi flag on Oceania’s Puncak Jaya and became one of some 50 women to accomplish the seven-summit feat. Already that challenge has paled in comparison to what’s next: using Ösel Bangladesh, her new foundation, to build a support network for young women in her country and then across South Asia through education and outdoor training. So far, three fathers have contacted her to say they named their daughters Wasfia. “I’m not saying this out of ego,” she says. “But they’re thinking bigger for their daughters, and this is such a nontraditional thing to imagine.”

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Marina Elliott descends into a cave where archaeologists unearthed Homo naledi, a previously unknown cousin of humans. The route’s “pinch point” was less than eight inches wide.

Marina Elliott Biological anthropologist

In October 2013 Marina Elliott answered a mysterious Facebook ad seeking experienced archaeologists and paleontologists with a specific physique: “The person must be skinny and preferably small,” it read.

The next month, Elliott was squeezing through an eight-inch-wide passage into a South African cave filled with fossils of a previously undiscovered human relation: Homo naledi.

Paleoanthropologist Lee Berger had posted the request for diminutive team members to excavate a cave in the Cradle of Humankind, a World Heritage site outside Johannesburg where many important human fossils had been discovered. Elliott, then a biological anthropology Ph.D. student in Canada, was a sport climber and had done fieldwork in the inhospitable terrains of Siberia and northern Alaska.

She was the first of the six chosen scientists to slide into the chamber where climbers had initially spotted fossils. The passage was so narrow that there wasn’t room to wear a safety harness. “We thought, There’s just one skeleton. We’ll dig it out and then all go out and live our lives,” she recalls. “But the first time I went in it really hit me what we were dealing with. I shone my headlamp around the chamber, and everywhere it shone I could see pieces of bone.” Each fossil was carefully wrapped and relayed along a chain of scientists and cavers to the surface. After three weeks they had unearthed 1,550 fossils belonging to 15 different individuals and had added a branch to humankind’s family tree.

After finishing her degree, Elliott moved to South Africa to continue excavating and analyzing the materials and dating the bones with Berger. Ten years earlier, a class on human origins had inspired her to abandon a career in veterinary medicine and become an anthropologist. Now future students will likely read of her discoveries.

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Years of advocating for Sri Lanka’s blue whales is paying off, Asha de Vos says. The nation’s government is taking steps to protect whales from the threats posed by shipping vessels.

Asha de Vos Marine biologist and ocean educator

Asha de Vos likes to say her career started with a pile of feces. In 2003 the marine biologist was working on a research boat off the Sri Lankan coast when she saw excrement float to the surface. Six blue whales were swimming below in a narrow area within a busy shipping lane. Upon further investigation, de Vos realized that the whales were staying put instead of migrating to waters with richer food sources. Theorizing that they were an unrecognized unique population, she dubbed them the “unorthodox whales.” She also discovered that vessels moving to and from the port were often striking the creatures, sometimes fatally. In 2008 she set up the Sri Lankan Blue Whale Project to advocate for the protection of the whales and their North Indian Ocean habitat.

“My friends say I’m as unorthodox as the animals I study,” says de Vos, who is the first Sri Lankan to get a Ph.D. in marine mammal research. Despite being both highly educated and dedicated, she struggled for years to break into the conservation field in Sri Lanka. “People didn’t take me seriously because I was too young and too female, which for me is a compliment,” de Vos says. “Even now people say, ‘When are you getting married?’ Well, first I have a whole ocean to save.”

In 2011 a video highlighting de Vos’s work went viral, and her country started taking action. Recently, she was asked to be an adviser to the Ministry of Sustainable Development and Wildlife, which she sees as a chance to solidify conservation efforts. Sri Lanka, she says, “can be an example for marine sustainability in the developing world.”

The National Geographic Society recognizes and supports explorers who are making a difference and changing the world. Learn more about the Emerging Explorer program.

The rest of the 2016 emerging explorers: Panut Hadisiswoyo, conservationist; Naftali Honig, wildlife crime investigator; Jedidah Isler, observational astrophysicist; Yukinori Kawae, archaeologist and Egyptologist; David Lang, maker and writer; Jeffrey Marlow, geobiologist, writer, and educator; Genevieve von Petzinger, paleoanthropologist; Gao Yufang, conservationist