I first met Mireya Mayor a few weeks ago when she was the keynote speaker at this incredible science convention. We really hit it off, so I invited her to come chat with me over coffee.
Cara Santa Maria: It's so good to see you again!
Mireya Mayor: It's great to see you!
CSM: Yeah! So I met you at Science Online, which was this awesome conference.
MM: It was a blast.
CSM: And, you were our keynote. I mean basically, what you were really speaking to was being a woman, being in the trenches, being a scientist...
MM: There is this notion that scientists are straight laced or boring or--whatever it is--or manly, as the case may be. And that stereotype, it was important for me to try and break it and really put the message out like, hey girls, it's totally cool to be a scientist and...
MM: You could be an NFL cheerleader in one life and still be a scientist later, you know.
CSM: That's what I was going to mention, is that I know that we both have a shared cheerleading past. Of course, mine stopped in high school...I wasn't really that good. But, you were an NFL cheerleader?
MM: Yeah, I basically traded in my pom poms for a lab coat.
CSM: So, you ended up going to Madagascar to study lemurs, right? That was your love, was primates?
MM: Time magazine actually did an article--I think they called it Death Row--and it showed these pictures of the different primates that were on the verge of extinction. And two of them, they had no photographs, just these line drawings. The reason they didn't have pictures is that no one had been able to really study them or go out there, and there were fewer than two hundred left--some people said a hundred--in the wild.
CSM: So, no one had ever captured them on a camera?
MM: No one had ever captured them on film, and that's what really grabbed me. And I thought, okay, I want go and figure out what is this animal and get pictures of it. So, I'm out in Madagascar and I'm studying these lemurs, and me and my colleague discovered a brand new species of primate, and we got to name it. And we went back, and actually, with all the photographs and documentation, I approached the government in Madagascar--I talked to the Prime Minister and the President--and had them declare this area a national park.
CSM: That's so cool because then you can effect change once you get there.
CSM: If you discover that there is a habitat that needs to be protected, you can get involved politically.
MM: That's right.
CSM: (I totally didn't clean that. I didn't clean the apple juice out before I dumped the hot chocolate in!) Okay, so and I also heard that you actually have two really little ones, right?
MM: I actually have four really little ones.
CSM: They're all really little, okay. Wow! I don't know how you do it.
MM: I have a six year-old, a four year-old, and two--well twins--seven month-olds.
CSM: So you just kind of have to find that balance between when you're home with the family and when you're out in the field.
MM: Exactly. But I felt like, especially because I have four daughters, I felt like it would be doing them a disservice if mommy stayed home and didn't do what I'm passionate about. Not that there's anything wrong with staying home.
CSM: Well, you want to be able to inspire them.
CSM: Being a woman in science makes me a little sad that it's still very rare.
MM: I can't even believe it. You know, I go around the country; I give a lot of lectures. And it still astounds me every time a young girl will approach me and say "I didn't know I could do this." Science has been a male-dominated field. I didn't want to change who I was. You know, I like nice shoes. I like little cute black dresses. And I'm not going to change that so that I'm taken more seriously as a scientist. I'm going to let the science speak for me.
CSM: And that's so important, I think, for young girls to remember too.
MM: And there just does come a point in the school system where the girls are turned off to the science, and I think it's really important to let them know, hey you know, we're doing it!
CSM: And it's important, I think, honestly, because of people like you. So, I want to thank you for that, and thanks for chatting with me today.
MM: Oh no, my pleasure. Thank you!
Mireya Mayor is a wildlife correspondent and primatologist who has received two Emmy nominations for her work with National Geographic. She is also the author of the book "Pink Boots and a Machete: My Journey from NFL Cheerleader to National Geographic Explorer." You can follow Mireya on Twitter @MireyaMayor.
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