What does a female scientist look like?

She had me at the title: “Pink Boots and a Machete: My journey from NFL cheerleader to National Geographic Explorer.”

Seriously, how could I not be curious? After Mark sent me a link to The Adventure Blog with the comment, “Thought you might be interested in this” I immediately went to Amazon and ordered the autobiography/memoir of Mireya Mayor. I had no idea who she was, but I wanted to know more.


On her website, Mayor seems amused by the various titles the media assigns her, mostly because her career defies an easy label. A former cheerleader with the Miami Dolphins, she earned her PhD in anthropology with a specialization in primates and, for the last decade, has worked as a wildlife correspondent on television. You may have seen her on National Geographic (Ultimate Explorer, Explorer and Out There) or the History Channel (Expedition Africa).

I admit, I am unfamiliar with her work. But her story is riveting.

The book accounts her upbringing in Miami with her mother, grandmother and aunt — three strong Cuban woman who fled from the Castro regime in the 1960s. Her mom never let her join the Girl Scouts and soon Mayor adopted girlie-girl ways including a strong attraction to grooming and fashion. (This becomes apparent throughout the book as she often discusses having her tweezers with her on African expeditions to keep her eyebrows in check. Seriously.)

While in college, Mayor makes the Miami Dolphins cheerleading squad. Still attending classes (she is, after all, making just $25 a game as a professional cheerleader) she ends up in an anthropology course which ignites her passion for animals on the verge of extinction. And thus begins her journey into studying primates in Africa.

She is smart, beautiful, athletic, and has an incredible sense of humor.

On being the only woman on an expedition:

More often than not I find myself the only woman amid 30 to 50 men (including film crew and porters). Field producers and videographers are overwhelmingly male. If one was looking for Mr. Right, this would not be a bad thing. But I wasn’t looking for love — all I ever needed to find was a private place to pee.

It was the right place, right time, right look for Mayor to get TV work with National Geographic as she was continuing her studies and expeditions in Africa. And she seemed to constantly be running up against a classic no-win situation: Pretty helped get her the gig, but pretty was also an obstacle:

I got my job in television not only because of my credentials but also because of how I looked. National Geographic liked that I didn’t look like a typical scientist. I know that criticism comes with the territory if you’re a scientist and a woman who likes wearing pink boots and tank tops.

From www.mireyamayor.com

Her journey seems peppered with the question: What is a female scientist/explorer is supposed to look like? While she has a definite affinity for girlie culture, she is full invested in her science, fully able to embrace the gritty, primal existence while in some of the most remote places on earth.

It’s the contradiction between girlie and jungle explorer that piques people’s curiosity, and while Mayor addresses it, she never really describes how she reconciles it for herself. Then again, perhaps it’s more effective to leave that reconciliation up to the reader. Because in our own lives, it is often in the contradictions that we find our best selves.

She balances being a mother and wife with being a scientist. She combines her girlie-girl nature with the realities of the jungle. And she does it because she is secure in who she is and what she wants:

I have accepted who I am. I do what I love and am passionate about. Once you do that, you just find the way to make it work.

It’s an inspiration to see how Mayor makes it work, makes me revel in the contradictions in my own life and celebrate my own passions.

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