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Explorer Takes a Path Less Traveled 

Mireya Mayor, the daughter of Cuban immigrants, grew up in Miami, and her mother was protective of her only child, thinking Girl Scouts was too dangerous. All these years later, Ms. Mayor has slept in tents on the side of a mountain, been charged by gorillas and chased by elephants, and has ventured into some of the most remote areas of the world. 

She is a primatologist, author, television host, the first female field correspondent for National Geographic, and the director of Exploration and Science Communication at Florida International University, and she regularly presents at schools across the country. 

On Tuesday, December 5, as part of the Hubbard Speaker Series, Ms. Mayor was the guest speaker at an all-school convocation at Loomis Chaffee. The school theme this year is “The Wonder of the Natural World,” which Ms. Mayor has experienced around the globe, from the Amazon to Madagascar, where in 2001 she discovered a new species of lemur, considered the smallest primate in the world. The mouse lemur’s territory is now a protected space. Ms. Mayor spoke of her career path and many of her explorations with video and photos augmenting her talk. After the convocation, Ms. Mayor also met with a College-Level Environmental Science class. 

Before the convocation started, Ms. Mayor said she hoped the students “would be inspired to care just a little bit more about the planet, but also there is a deep message about following dreams and not giving up that is important. My background in the sciences … often resonates, particularly with young girls who may feel pigeon-holed in some ways. Especially when it comes to careers in STEM, there seems to be more of a challenge for young women to break in. The goal is that they find it within themselves if they are passionate about it to know that they can do it.” 

Ms. Mayor’s background includes being a former cheerleader for the Miami Dolphins, a mother of six children, and a pre-law major at the University of Miami. She needed to fulfill a science requirement for her degree at Miami, though, and when her first choice wasn’t available, she signed up for an anthropology course. “We started learning about endangered primates on the verge of extinction and it captured my attention,” she told the students. 

Ms. Mayor ended up majoring in anthropology and philosophy at Miami, where she earned a bachelor’s degree. A Fulbright Scholar and a National Science Foundation fellow, she earned a doctorate in anthropology from Stony Brook University in New York in 2008. 

She had always loved animals. “My house was basically a zoo growing up,” she said. “Dogs and cats and birds and of course my pet chicken Marguerita [which was on a screen behind her as she spoke about that time in her life]. And I collected all sorts of creepy crawlers and chased lizards, but it wasn't until college that I realized this could be a career.” 

After having her first child, who is now 18 years old, she questioned her career choice.  

“I think for women, especially in a career like mine, it can be very difficult if you want to have a family. I know many women who delayed having children. … again this is where my story is a little unique in that I didn’t let it stop me. I knew I wanted to have a big family. Six kids is rare anyway, let alone in a career of an explorer. 

“My mom initially didn’t think this was a good career choice because she wanted something more traditional for me. When I had my first daughter, I thought, ‘Now what do I do?’ because I had been living in the jungles of Madagascar for the last 10 months. My mom said, ‘You go back out because [being a primatologist] is not what you do, it is who you are.’ The important message for me was that I had to be who I am for my children, especially my five daughters. I wanted them to see an example of someone who could balance career and family life.” 

Mireya Mayor fielding a question after December 2023 convocation.

Dr. Mireya Mayor fields a question after speaking at an all-school convocation on Tuesday, December 5. Her explorations have taken her around the world.

Ms. Mayor’s presentation included photos and video footage of her in faraway places doing things close to her heart. The media over the years has taken to calling her the “female Indiana Jones,” a nod to the movie character made famous by actor Harrison Ford. She once had dinner with Ford, she said, sharing a photo of the two of them together. 

“And I said, ‘For just one night, I am going to call you the male Dr. Mireya Mayor,’” she said. 

One could also call her a difference maker, which is reflected in another story she told the students. 

“If you make a positive difference, you can not only make a positive change in the world, but you can influence someone else to,” she said as the photo of a young boy appeared behind her. “I realized that in Madagascar most kids had never seen a lemur before or been in the rain forest. And how are you going to really want to protect something you don’t know? … When you know something, you can love it, and when you love it, you want to protect it.” 

She arranged for field trips from the villages into the rain forest so children could take part in the scientific process.  

“This little boy fell in love with this work and grew up to be one of the top national park directors in Madagascar,” she said. 


 

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