National Geographic Explorers a ‘Secret Weapon’ to Change the World, Says Society President Gary Knell

“This is truly National Geographic’s moment, because as Neil deGrasse Tyson says, the great thing about science is that it’s true, whether you believe it or not,” National Geographic Society President and CEO Gary E. Knell said at the opening of the Explorers Festival (#NatGeoFest) at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C. today.

Knell told hundreds of National Geographic explorers and head office staff that the Society had been through a major transition that transformed the organization, “a transformation that better positioned National Geographic to address the multiple challenges facings its future, but more importantly, facing our planet. We figured out a way to support your critical work in a more direct way and tackle those issues by connecting and integrating our multimedia platforms. And today the content that we are generating, the stories we’re telling, the grants we’re making, the actions we’re taking, are more needed and important than ever before.”

Photograph by Randall Scott/NGS

The weeklong festival is a way of sharing ideas and innovation, Knell said. “It’s about bringing everyone together and creating a space where [explorers] can cross-pollinate. You can build on each other’s strengths and brainstorm new approaches and lay the groundwork for future collaboration, and solve our most pressing problems. The dialogues you have here have an incredible potential to not only change your careers and your lives. In many cases they will change the world. We know this because we have seen it happen here again and again.”

Knell listed examples of how explorers had used previous symposiums to join forces and produce ground-breaking ideas:

  • In 2012, Guillermo  de Anda, an archaeologist who explores Mayan tombs in underwater caves in Yucatan, was an Emerging Explorer. He met NGS Fellow Cory Jaskolski, an engineer and inventor who developed technologies such as robotic camera systems to help scientists and filmmakers. “The two began an incredible collaboration, and next week Guillermo, Cory and two National Geographic engineers will travel to the El Castillo pyramid, and utilizing ground-penetrating radar, will scan behind the famous pyramid’s walls — an extraordinary project, and it all started here at symposium,” Knell said.
  • In 2014 David Gruber and Robert Wood, both Emerging Explorers, struck up a conversation at symposium. “David, a marine biologist, Robert, a robotist and the founder of the Harvard Microrobotics Lab. David was looking for new ways to extract delicate coral samples from inaccessible reefs. Robert had the expertise to help. Together they received the Nat Geo Innovation Challenge Grant and invented “squishy robot fingers” — soft robotic hands that allowed researchers to sample corals without damaging them, and they won a National Science Foundation grant to continue their work,” Knell said.
  • Galapagos marine reserve. Photograph by Enric Sala

    In 2008 Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala and National Geographic launched the Pristine Seas project to survey and help restore the last truly wild places in the ocean. Since its inception it has become one of the most successful ocean conservancy efforts of all time, Knell explained. “In 2015 he met Emerging Explorer Jessica Cramp, a marine conservationist and shark researcher. Enric invited Jess to join a Pristine Seas expedition in the Galapagos. The survey she worked on helped inform the Ecuadorian Government’s decision to create a large no-take marine reserve around Darwin and Wolf islands. The following year, Jess invite the Pristine Seas team to join an expedition in the South Pacific.”

  • Nat Geo Explorer Tierney Thys, a marine biologist and 2004 Emerging Explorer, and Nalini Nadkarni, an ecologist and grant recipient, had a conversation with Tan Le, an inventor and entrepreneur, at the 2013 symposium. “Tan was an Emerging Explorer and a pioneer of portable EEG technology which measures electrical activity of the brain. Together they applied for a Society Innovation Grant to explore the power of nature imagery on brain activity and emotion using Tan’s EEG headset. Their effort garnered global media coverage and is helping inform ongoing work today by Nalini and Tierney that focuses on brain nature imagery to inmates in prisons and other nature-deprived settings. Amazing work, and yet another example of the power of this annual gathering and the power of you, our explorers.”
Photograph by Randall Scott/NGS

Achievements of the Past Year

In addition to those collaborations, those success stories, Explorers Festival is also about looking back and recognizing all the amazing work that National Geographic and its explorers have accomplished over the past year, Gary Knell said. “In 2016 alone, National Geographic helped protect more than 1.2 million square kilometers of ocean through the work of Pristine Seas, walked 3,000 km on the Silk Road with Paul Salopek, and added hundreds of images to Joel Sartore‘s Photo Ark, documenting a total of 6,400 species.

Photograph by Randall Scott/NGS

Anything Is Possible

“In 2016 we explored, protected, inspired, educated and connected. We pushed further. And we showed the world that when we work together and capitalize on the extraordinary talent and passion of our explorers and the Society, anything is possible,” Knell said.

“This is our theme for the week, and it is a rallying cry that we can carry forth for the entire year and for years to come. Over the days ahead we are going to celebrate all that National Geographic and all you, our explorers, stand for, building a weeklong explorers festival around this symposium. We’ve invited more Nat Geo explorers than ever to take part in the festivities, and have opened it up to the public to showcase your work to the world through live events and livestreaming across all the National Geographic platforms.”

“Amidst this gridlock and divisiveness in our political world, National Geographic’s mission and role in society is growing more urgent by the minute. Make no mistake that National Geographic has been and will continue to be on the side of the planet and we are not stopping now. We’re up to the challenge.

National Geographic honors its explorers and their peers because the work of National Geographic and the work of Nat Geo explorers is more important than ever before, Knell said.

“The threats to our planet’s wildlife and natural world are increasing every day, from the exploding global population to the effects of climate change to growing geopolitical tensions and polarization.

“Amidst this gridlock and divisiveness in our political world, National Geographic’s mission and role in society is growing more urgent by the minute. Make no mistake that National Geographic has been and will continue to be on the side of the planet and we are not stopping now. We’re up to the challenge. We have the organization, the legacy and the sense of purpose to stay focused and to push forward. And we have a secret weapon that no one else has anywhere in the world: We have you, the most dedicated amazing minds in science, research, exploration, and storytelling on the planet. As our theme for this year’s event says so fittingly, when our Society and our explorers join forces, anything is possible.”

Want to become a National Geographic Explorer? Learn how you can apply for a grant from the National Geographic Society.


Changing Planet


Meet the Author
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn