National Geographic Cuban-American explorer Mireya Mayor has returned to her hometown of Miami. The former Miami Dolphins cheerleader has traveled to the most remote places of the world like Madagascar and the Congo. Mayor has swum with sharks, been chased by elephants, bitten by poisonous bugs and charged by gorillas. Her adventures have landed her the nickname in the national media the female Indiana Jones.
One of Mayor’s biggest achievements has been the co-discovery of a new species of mouse lemur in Madagascar which led to the nation’s leaders to declare the animal’s habitat a national park. She’s the author of the book, “Pink Boots and a Machete: My Journey from NFL Cheerleader to National Geographic Explorer.” Now she’s starting a new journey as the director for the exploration and science communication initiative at Florida International University (FIU).
Mayor joined Sundial and talked to host Luis Hernandez about her new position with FIU and her adventures with National Geographic.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
WLRN: Do you remember the first time you made the trip to Madagascar? What were you doing?
MAYOR: It felt like I was coming home. It is an incredible place to work. The biodiversity there is unsurpassed in fact, most researchers would agree that it is the top biodiversity hotspot in the world. But also, it's under threat because of so much habitat loss and deforestation.
Right now, less than 10 percent of the original forest in Madagascar remains. It is a country that is incredibly overly populated. More than half of the population in Madagascar is under the age of 14. Because the soil in Madagascar is poor in nutrients, they can only yield a couple of crops before they have to move on to the next patch of forest. So it is also considered now the world's poorest country in the world. All of these things combined make it a very challenging place to work, much more so than anywhere else, I've ever worked. But the payoff is so huge because of the diversity there.
How is the natural habitat reacting to climate change?
The truth is, is that this is something that impacts all of us. We know in Florida, we're at the front of climate change and the effects of that. It's the same across the globe, in Africa or Madagascar, really anywhere. The impact that it's having on people's daily lives, for example, deforestation is just more than habitat loss for the wildlife. The impact that has on people in severe areas where you have the most deforestation, are areas where you see the most concentrated ratios of malaria, disease and illness is more prevalent. It starts to affect everything and it affects the people.
Tell me a little bit about the initiative. What is it? What is your goal?
My goal is to empower scientists, whether that's faculty or graduate students to effectively communicate their scientific research. The way I look at it is, is you could do amazing scientific research and have great discoveries, but they'll languish in files if you don't get the word out. There is so much exciting stuff happening in the field of science that isn't really put out there or it's put out there in a way that most people don't understand or can't relate to it. I think more than ever, we're at a critical time with issues of the environment and climate change that affect our daily lives. It is very important for scientists to connect the work that they're doing and how this work will heal the planet and improve people's daily life.