• Real-World Geography: Dr. Meave Leakey
    Meave Leakey is a paleontologist.

    Photograph by Kenneth Garrett

    By Stuart Thornton

    Wednesday, April 4, 2012

    Paleontology is a family business for Meave Leakey. Meave, her husband, Richard, and her daughter Louise are all paleontologists. Meave and Louise are also National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence.

    Meave's work keeps her busy on two continents. She is a paleontologist and research professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and is the director of Plio-Pleistocene research for the Turkana Basin Institute in Nariobi, Kenya.

    EARLY WORK

    Growing up in Kent County, England, Meave fell in love with the natural world at an early age.

    "I always had an interest in the sea and an interest in marine organisms and things like that," she says. "My father was also very interested, and he loved photography, so he took lots of photographs of wildlife and natural things. It's something I grew up with at home but not at school."

    In college, Meave decided to pursue her interest in marine life. "I went to the University of North Wales, where I did a joint honors degree in oceanography and zoology," she says. "I had always dreamt that I would be a marine zoologist, but this did not happen. There were few women in science at that time and very few on marine research vessels."

    In 1965, Meave changed her focus to zoology. "I originally had a position working for [future husband] Richard's father, Louis Leakey, at a primate research center that he had founded near Nairobi," she says. "I worked two years there and at the same time was able to collect data for my PhD. When I had completed my dissertation, Louis invited me back to the primate research center to provide some continuity because the lady who was running the center was leaving. During this time I met Richard, who was then looking for scientists to join his field expedition to East Turkana. I first joined his expedition that year, 1969."

    That paleontology field expedition ended up having a big influence on Meave. "This was not a job," she says. "It was an invitation to be part of the annual three-month expedition along with many other scientists who were specialists in different aspects of the work. It changed my life, however, since I realized that this was what I loved doing."

    MOST EXCITING PART OF YOUR WORK

    "Obviously, the most exciting thing is when you actually make a discovery. It could be the thing that keeps you going ... that you never know what you are going to find or when you are going to find it."

    MOST DEMANDING PART OF YOUR WORK

    "Raising funds I think. It’s so hard to raise money."

    HOW DO YOU DEFINE GEOGRAPHY?

    "I think geography is a spatial thing. From our point of view, we are always looking into the past and where things were and what they looked like in the past. So geography for me is the landscape and how it relates to other landscapes."

    GEO-CONNECTION

    Meave says the geography of the Turkana Basin region has made it such a rich area of exploration for paleontologists.

    "It is a rift valley, so it was a valley," she says. "So there was always a river flowing into it, bringing lots of sediment. That sediment buried anything that was lying on the surface, so that’s how you get so many fossils preserved."

    Meave and the other paleontologists exploring the Turkana Basin use modern geographic tools. "GIS is essential for the spatial analysis of the things that we find," Meave says. "We use it extensively. All the fossils that we collect are recorded with GPS coordinates."

    SO, YOU WANT TO BE A ... PALEONTOLOGIST

    Meave suggests college students consider spending a semester in the Turkana Basin as a student at the Turkana Basin Institute Field School. Attendees get a chance to do field work in one of the world’s richest areas for paleoanthropology.

    GET INVOLVED

    "That's a question you can address my daughter [Louise Leakey]," Meave says. "I’m more involved in the field school and research side, and she is much more interested in the education side and getting students involved!"

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    continent Noun

    one of the seven main land masses on Earth.

    Encyclopedic Entry: continent
    coordinates Noun

    a set of numbers giving the precise location of a point, often its latitude and longitude.

    county Noun

    political unit smaller than a state or province, but typically larger than a city, town, or other municipality.

    Encyclopedic Entry: county
    data Plural Noun

    (singular: datum) information collected during a scientific study.

    dissertation Noun

    written thesis or document written by a candidate for a doctor of philosophy (PhD) degree.

    expedition Noun

    journey with a specific purpose, such as exploration.

    Explorer-in-Residence Noun

    pre-eminent explorers and scientists collaborating with the National Geographic Society to make groundbreaking discoveries that generate critical scientific information, conservation-related initiatives and compelling stories.

    family Noun

    group of organisms that come from the same ancestors and share similar characteristics. Family is also a classification in chemistry and math.

    Encyclopedic Entry: family
    field work Noun

    scientific studies done outside of a lab, classroom, or office.

    Encyclopedic Entry: field work
    fossil Noun

    remnant, impression, or trace of an ancient organism.

    Encyclopedic Entry: fossil
    fund Verb

    to give money to a program or project.

    geographic information system (GIS) Noun

    any system for capturing, storing, checking, and displaying data related to positions on the Earth's surface.

    Encyclopedic Entry: GIS (geographic information system)
    geography Noun

    study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.

    Encyclopedic Entry: geography
    Global Positioning System (GPS) Noun

    system of satellites and receiving devices used to determine the location of something on Earth.

    landscape Noun

    the geographic features of a region.

    Encyclopedic Entry: landscape
    marine Adjective

    having to do with the ocean.

    marine zoologist Noun

    study of animals that live in and around the ocean.

    oceanography Noun

    study of the ocean.

    Encyclopedic Entry: oceanography
    paleoanthropology Noun

    study of the fossils of ancient human ancestors. Also called human paleontology.

    paleontology Noun

    the study of fossils and life from early geologic periods.

    Encyclopedic Entry: paleontology
    PhD Noun

    (doctor of philosophy) highest degree offered by most graduate schools.

    Plio-Pleistocene adjective, noun

    geologic period incorporating the Pliocene and the Pleistocene epochs, from about 5 million years ago to about 12,000 years ago. Some geologists and paleontologists consider the current epoch, the Holocene, also part of the Plio-Pleistocene.

    primate Noun

    type of mammal, including humans, apes, and monkeys.

    region Noun

    any area on the Earth with one or more common characteristics. Regions are the basic units of geography.

    Encyclopedic Entry: region
    research vessel Noun

    ship or boat equipped to carry out scientific experiments or collect data.

    rift valley Noun

    depression in the ground caused by the Earth's crust spreading apart.

    Encyclopedic Entry: rift valley
    river Noun

    large stream of flowing fresh water.

    Encyclopedic Entry: river
    sea Noun

    large part of the ocean enclosed or partly enclosed by land.

    Encyclopedic Entry: sea
    sediment Noun

    solid material transported and deposited by water, ice, and wind.

    Encyclopedic Entry: sediment
    spatial Adjective

    having to do with location and placement.

    valley Noun

    depression in the Earth between hills.

    zoology Noun

    the study of animals.

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