By Kellie Houx
While the pompons that accompanied her stint as a Miami Dolphins cheerleader are part of her past, Dr. Mireya Mayor is much happier with her pink boots, machete, traveling friends and being an explorer recognized by the almost 125-year-old organization called National Geographic. Her 2011 book, Pink Boots and a Machete: My Journey From NFL Cheerleader to National Geographic Explorer, will be part of her talk on May 21. Mayor will be in town at Helzberg Hall in Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts as part of the National Geographic Explorer Series.
The audience will get a sort of highlights reel of Mayor’s life’s journey from the sheltered daughter of Cuban immigrants to that cheerleader to the adventurer who visits remote places without medical care, but lots of wild animals. She is a Fulbright scholar, National Science Foundation Fellow and published author with a doctorate in anthropology from Stony Brook University.
“There is not one path that is right. I am perfectly comfortable in the field. I really believe it’s the environment you are in. I was that girly girl who loved to climb trees. I don’t want to adhere to any stereotype. That’s why I have the relationship of two items like the pink boots which offer the femininity and the machete which epitomizes the adventure. They seem to be not mutually in agreement, but they work for me.”
In 1999, National Geographic was doing a story in Madagascar and asked Mayor to say a few words about the lemurs. Impressed by her passion for the subject, down-to-earth delivery of scientific knowledge and unique background, National Geographic offered Mayor the opportunity of a lifetime and her dream job: a staff wildlife correspondent position, complete with her own office. She has since gone underwater with six-foot Humboldt squids, scoped out gorillas in Central Africa, swam with great white and six-gilled sharks, and worked with leopards in Namibia.
“National Geographic is that credibility,” she says. She wrote the foreword and was a major contributor for National Geographic’s Complete Survival Manual, has written articles for National Geographic’s kids magazines Explorer and Extreme Explorer and is working closely with National Geographic’s School Publishing on videos and textbooks for classrooms nationwide. “I am grateful to work with many departments such as the kids magazines and the television. The speakers bureau is great because National Geographic only brings in a few folks with the ability to tell stories.”
“I wear a lot of hats. I think scientist is too rigid, but I would have to say explorer is my favorite. It’s a combination of all the things I am … mother, daughter, wife added to the explorer, researcher and intrepid world traveler. … I will admit that it is hard to be away from my kids, but also it’s about the quality time, not just quantity. They already understand that their mother is happy in the pursuit of big dreams. I want to do what I do and have a family. It is important to embrace all the facets. Life is not one dimensional and neither am I.”
Mayor is even becoming more comfortable with the concept of role model. “It’s not presumptuous on my part because I know that when I give talks, I am part of a field that is predominately male. Women are lacking in this field and I don’t take what I do lightly. So often, explorers are seen as khaki-clad men. We are fortunate to have Jane Goodall, but there aren’t many female faces on the television.”
Mayor just returned from a medical mission trip to Madagascar before her trip to Kansas City. She has made numerous trips to the country off the southeastern coast of Africa. In 2000, she and a colleague made a discovery of a new species of mouse lemur in Madagascar. Based on her hard-won documentation and her ties to National Geographic, Mayor convinced Madagascar’s prime minister and then the president to declare the new mouse lemur species’ habitat a national park. The president has since committed to triple the number of protected areas in the nation and established a $50 million conservation trust fund.
Even before Mayor had her daughters, she knew she wanted to see the survival of species on the verge of extinction. “I didn’t have a husband or children, but I knew the beauty of the wild needed protecting. Now with my daughters, I want to make these differences even more.”
NatGeo Wild – MIREYA MAYOR 2 5-1: Mark Thiessen © Nat Geo WILD
MireyaMayor_mouselemur: Photograph by Mark Thiessen