March 1, 2011 | 2
Today is the publication day of Pink Boots and the Machete, book by Mireya Mayor, physical anthropologist, National Geographic Explorer, and former NFL Cheerleader. For this occasion, we have invited Darlene Cavalier to conduct a brief interview with the author.
Darlene: You discovered the world’s smallest primate in existence in Madagascar. Walk me through the steps of how one observes, then proves, this. You make it seem so easy.
Mireya: The mouse lemur discovery was like many, if not most, scientific discoveries, an accident. For years, I had been traveling throughout Madagascar studying the behavior and genetics of the larger lemurs, several of which had never been the focus of any scientific investigation. On this particular expedition, my colleague Dr. Edward Louis and I were conducting a survey and genetic investigation in Marojejy National Park in northeastern Madagascar on one of the most endangered primates on earth, Propithecus candidus, also known as the Silky Sifaka.
There were some discrepancies in the lemur books as to which small lemur inhabited those forests, so we set out small mammal traps baited with fruit. The idea is that the little creature is lured in, the door closes behind it, we scientists peek and then release it at the capture tree. From the moment we looked in the trap, we knew this 2-ounce, big-eyed creature that fit in the palm of our hand, was different.
But we needed proof. We took genetic samples (blood and tissue) before releasing it, in order to investigate the nuclear and mitochondrial DNA, as well as perform cytogenetic studies and determine chromosome numbers. Before releasing our newly discovered species, we took morphological measurements and weights as well as photographs as further lines of evidence. After several years of working on developing genetic markers with a team of scientists and comparing it to other known species, we were at long last able to confirm and name Microcebus mittermeieri as a new species.
Darlene: You write in your book, "I had proof positive of this mouse lemur’s existence, I had to take steps to make sure it continued to exist." Why did you take that on?
Mireya: Making a scientific discovery is certainly any scientist’s dream. But what would be the point of describing a new species and have it go into the history books rather than the scientific literature? I wanted to make sure that this species persisted, and the only way to ensure its survival was to protect its habitat. This small discovery became a huge ambassador for all things wild in Madagascar, once I presented our findings to the Prime Minister and he declared the area a National Park.
Darlene: Quite a leap for someone whose only visits to foreign countries (prior to your collegiate expedition) were trips to Disney’s Epcot where you saw "China" next to "Norway." I worked at Disney and can attest to the fact that your experience is shared by millions of other people. As you well know, we can’t diss these folks. Hell, at least they went to Epcot when they could have stayed at the Magic Kingdom. Besides, it takes different ingredients to bake a pie.
When multiple observations are considered, for example, new galaxies are discovered by amateur astronomers. People who’ve never traveled abroad are contributing to science from their own backyards via so-called citizen science projects that call upon these volunteers to help professional researchers track climate change, chart the migratory paths of birds and butterflies, and even monitor the health of our nation’s rivers. These citizen scientists are contributing to science in big ways. My personal (well, professional) crusade is to find ways to move those Epcot guests and your NatGeo viewers from consumers of science entertainment to participants in science. What are your thoughts about the role of everyday people in science?
Mireya: I don’t think you need to travel halfway across the globe to make a difference in our scientific community. In fact, it is our everyday decisions that make an impact on our environment and the planet as a whole. By simply remaining educated about current issues, both locally and globally, being responsible consumers and spreading the word, you are doing your part in helping the natural world. We are all born scientists, filled with curiosity and wonder about the world around us. By tapping into that inner explorer, you can make a world of difference from your own living room.
Darlene: You stumbled upon formal science education because of a college prerequisite. Unlike most nations, the U.S. requires students in four-year universities to take two science courses. Jon Miller, a researcher at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR), suggests this very requirement is, in part, responsible for the notable difference between U.S. adult science literacy rates (U.S. ranks 2nd only to Sweden) and U.S. K-12 rates (we’re middle of the pack, at best, in international comparisons). Had science not been a prerequisite, what course did you have your eye on and how might that have changed your life?
Mireya: With a double major in English and Philosophy I was on the academic path of becoming a lawyer. I don’t need to tell you just how different my life would have been.
Darlene: In your book, you reference your four-year procheerleading career with the Miami Dolphins at least 30 times. Why so many references to your life as a cheerleader?
Mireya: The cheerleaders reacted to my decision, the same way everybody else does! They thought I was nuts, and with some good reason….At 22, never having been camping I set out to a remote and virtually unexplored jungle in South America with nothing more than pink boots, a hammock and a backpack. I left all ‘civilization’ behind, where there is no electricity or hot showers, or even a way to call home. They reacted to my news pretty much the same way my family did initially. And like my family, they are now my biggest cheerleaders, always supportive of my endeavors. I reference that time in my life because it was a very special and important one. It is also what most people think of as the antithesis of a scientist. It’s important to me that this stereotype be broken. Scientists can dance too!
Darlene: But will society permit dancers and cheerleaders to be scientists? Let’s talk about the objectification of women. Some folks have visceral objections to cheerleaders as science advocates, despite the cheerleaders’ credentials (science/engineering degrees), despite their very real connection to the estimated 3-4 million cheerleaders in the U.S. You’ve endured the ogling on-field and on-set. In your book, you recall the typical scene where you "shower beneath the waterfall." The title of your new series "Wild Nights with Mireya Mayor" is indeed provocative. What do you say to critics who say this type of objectification does more harm than good?
Mireya: I say it’s their problem, not mine. If we can make science sexy then we should and the more people we recruit into the sciences, even if they were drawn in to a provocative series title, the better. What is important in the end is that they remember the message and not just the shower scene.
Darlene: Do you have any regrets about being a procheerleader?
Mireya: Only that the Dolphins didn’t make it to the Super Bowl!
About the Author: Darlene Cavalier is the founder of Science Cheerleader.com, a site that promotes the involvement of citizens in science and science-related policy and aims to increase adult science literacy. Cavalier held executive positions at Walt Disney Publishing and worked at Discover magazine for more than a decade. She was the principal investigator of a $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant applied to promote basic research through partnerships with Disney and ABC TV. She’s led national programs for the NSF and NFL, NBC, ABC and more. Cavalier is a former Philadelphia 76ers cheerleader and holds a Masters degree from the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied the role of the citizen in science. She founded ScienceForCitizens.net, a site that connects regular people to real science they can do. She is a writer and senior strategist at Discover Magazine, popular public speaker, on the steering committee for Science Debate, and organized an effort to restore the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, with citizen involvement. She and her husband live in Philadelphia with their four young children.
The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.