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National Geographic invites undergrads to apply for project grants

Allison Farrand/Daily
Mayan archaeologist William Saturno and North Face climber Mark Synnott gave advice to those applying for National Geographic Young Explorers Grants Friday. Buy this photo

By Ian Dillingham, Daily Staff Reporter
Published September 27, 2013

For students stuck in the routine of daily lectures and homework, there may be a way out — adventure.

In an event at the Mendelssohn Theatre Friday evening, National Geographic continued its outreach campaign — now in its 14th year — to undergraduates around the nation to provide information about funding for research and exploration projects.

John Francis, vice president of research, conservation and exploration for the National Geographic Society, said the process of grant application has changed in recent years. Although undergraduates were always eligible to apply for grants through the organization, the “Young Explorers” grant — which was the focus of the event — represents a change in philosophy.

“This idea of reaching out to undergrads is really fairly new when it comes to our grant-making,” Francis said. “You’re seeing sort of a beginning of what should be big in going forward.”

Although the program is still growing, Francis said they currently visit three universities per year and plan to expand to Indonesia next year.

“A lot depends on how many people we can get to support these programs,” Francis said. “It’s just a matter of getting the right people to evaluate and make it happen. So, the sky’s the limit.”

National Geographic supports this demographic — 18 to 25 year olds — through individual grants of up to $5,000, which are awarded to select undergraduates after a competitive application process. In addition to the lecture, the society sponsored a workshop session Saturday to teach students how to get the financial support to follow their passions.

“We go to institutions to teach people how to ask us for money,” Francis said. “And we also teach people how to … compact their ideas — their dreams — into, sometimes, ‘elevator pitches’ that then can get people excited.”

Students at the workshop were also given the opportunity to practice pitching their projects to the National Geographic officials who are in charge of the grant application decisions.

To date, National Geographic has provided 84 grants to individuals at the University, totaling more than $1 million, according to Francis. He said the decision to host an event on campus this year was prompted by the history of involvement in the program by current and former University students.

“It’s always been a hotspot,” Francis said. “It’s one of those places that’s on the map already as a leading academic institution.”

The event was highlighted by presentations from two former National Geographic grant recipients: William Saturno, an assistant professor at Boston University, and professional climber Mark Synnott, a filmmaker and researcher for National Geographic and The North Face.

Saturno spoke about his research in Guatemala, where he has spent more than a decade finding and excavating ancient Mayan archeological sites.

With the help of NASA satellite images, Saturno was able to visualize changes in tree color around ancient Mayan settlements, allowing him to locate countless new structures and relics.

Saturno has received multiple grants from National Geographic, and he encouraged students to seek similar support for their areas of interest. He also discussed the importance of being able to generate public support for your projects.

“One of the important things about working with Geographic is being opened to narrative,” Saturno said. “And being open to the fact that other people can probably tell your story better than you.”

Synnott’s presentation chronicled his path to becoming a self-described “professional explorer.” In particular, he discussed his development as a professional climber, which has sent him locations around the world — most recently, the Persian Gulf.

Synnott encouraged students interested in grants to research projects that have already been funded before starting a new project. Before every trip, he catalogs any prior work or exploration done in the area, allowing him to find new areas to explore.

“I’m not the first person who’s had this idea,” Synnott said. “A lot of really smart, amazing people have dedicated their lives to exploring our world.”

Many grant recipients use their experiences as a pathway to careers or graduate programs in their chosen field. Francis said he hopes the grants will inspire a new generation of explorers and researchers, thus ensuring the continued mission of National Geographic.

“The idea is you help people along their way, you get a good story back, you tell it to the world and great things happen,” Francis said. “This program, we believe, is our effort to really change the future.”