Could You Be a National Geographic Young Explorer?

On April 22, National Geographic will host a workshop at Yale for students interested in its Young Explorers Grant Program. The event will include tips on preparing a good grant application a chance to meet previous awardees whose research reached a wider global audience through the grant program.

Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.

Kevin McLean ’16 Ph.D. says when he first applied for a National Geographic Young Explorers Grant to document wildlife movement in the canopy of forests in northeastern Panama, he didn’t know anything about climbing trees. Or even rocks for that matter. In fact, McLean was still relatively new to the field of terrestrial ecology having completed both his undergraduate and master’s research in marine science.
But the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES) doctoral student was determined to photograph wildlife movement where he says many of the animals are — high in the canopy. So he used the grant to learn how to climb trees and set camera traps 80 to 100 feet above the ground.
kevin mclean forest canopy Kevin McLean in the tree canopy.
“Climbing the tree is not super difficult,” he said. “Learning to move horizontally along the branches takes a lot of time.”
McLean will be part of a free workshop on April 22 for students interested in learning how to become a National Geographic Young Explorer. The event, which will begin at 2 p.m. in the Osborn Memorial Lab lecture hall (Room 202), will also include advice on the elements of a good grant application and an opportunity to meet National Geographic explorers and staff.
In addition to McLean, the event will feature presentations by other Young Explorers, including Lily Zeng, a Ph.D. student at F&ES, and Joe Riis., a wildlife photojournalist from National Geographic. (Students interested in the workshop, the first one ever held at Yale, are encouraged to preregister soon. Similar workshops at other universities often fill up fast.)
McLean, who received a Young Explorers grant in 2012, had previously used camera traps to research wildlife populations on the ground, but says setting up cameras in the canopy is a very different challenge. The National Geographic grant gave him the time to develop the necessary skills — what he calls his “testing phase” — so he could collect real data for his dissertation. That first season he got 300 images of wildlife, including possums, monkeys, and iguanas; the next year, his cameras captured 10 times that amount.
“Learning the skills to get in the tree, getting around in the tree, and getting the cameras to work was a lot of what the Young Explorers Grant funded,” he said.
The Young Explorers Grants program builds on National Geographic’s 127-year history of funding innovative science, exploration, and conservation by providing grants for fieldwork to individuals ages 18 through 25. Some projects seek to answer a specific research question or tell a story through art or film; others fund pure adventure. Since 1912, Yale applicants have been awarded a total of 91 grants from National Geographic collectively worth over a million dollars.
McLean says the grants are a great way for students to develop the necessary skills to do more advanced work. And for young researchers who often lack the experience necessary to secure grant funding, this type of support is essential.
“When you’re first starting out, it’s hard to find funding for your research because nobody wants to fund someone who hasn’t done anything yet,” he said. “This is a really good opportunity for people who are early in their careers. It gives you the money to get the ball rolling.”

He says the best projects are those that reflect a strong personal interest in the subject. But as with all grants, it’s essential to demonstrate why you are the right person for the job. “It’s not just showing that you have a good idea, but actually showing that you have a rational plan to carry out that project and that vision. And I think that’s the part that sort of gets forgotten,” McLean said.
Riis agrees. He cautions applicants against only considering projects in remote regions of the world. “Think about what’s happening in your own backyard or at your university,” he said.
This is a really good opportunity for people who are early in their careers. It gives you the money to get the ball rolling.
— Kevin McLean ’16 Ph.D.
Riis used his Young Explorers grant to photograph migrating pronghorn in the Grand Tetons; at the time, it was the longest documented land mammal migration in the Lower 48. Riis, who studied wildlife biology at the University of Wyoming, is part of an emerging field of conservation photographers whose work documents wildlife, but also includes the human context. His images reveal the challenges the pronghorn face as they navigate roads, barbed wire fences, and other obstacles along their migration.
“There’s a tradition in wildlife photography where if an animal is crossing the road, you wait until it crosses the road and then you photograph it with the mountain in the backdrop,” Riis said. “And then there’s this other idea — you photograph it when it’s on the road. You essentially try to give the full picture to the story.”
Riis spent nearly two years on his Young Explorers project, which led other assignments for National Geographic magazine. He’s photographed wild tigers in Thailand and Burma, and worked on projects from Africa to Mongolia. In recent years, Riis, like McLean, has used camera traps to document wildlife movement, most recently photographing elk migrations in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem with Arthur Middleton ’07 M.E.M., an associate research scientist at F&ES. Riis approached the work as both a scientist and as an artist. He spent months figuring out where the elk were moving, hiking their trails with Middleton before, during, and after the migration.
“I’m trying to produce very unique pictures that are moments in these animals’ lives that take months or years to make,” he said. “The purpose for me is to show people what it looks like to be a migrating animal. And catch those moments when [the elk] are at their most vulnerable.”
That project earned Riis and Middleton an Adventurer of the Year award and will be featured in the May issue of National Geographic magazine. The ecologist and photographer team will present their work on the Greater Yellowstone Migrations as part of the Science & Storytelling Symposium on April 23 at Kroon Hall.
Another F&ES student, Lily Zeng, first heard about the Young Explorers Grants from McLean. “He told me about this really cool opportunity, and I needed some additional funding for my doctoral dissertation fieldwork in China,” she said.

Zeng studies the changing relationship between indigenous communities and their traditionally protected sacred forests, its effect on land use practices, and its ecological implications for biodiversity conservation.

“My research is based in Xishuangbanna, an area that contains the world’s northernmost tropical rain forest and China’s richest biodiversity,” she said. “This work seeks to understand when and how community goals for protecting sacred forests are compatible with conservation goals, which is important for engaging with conservation science and policy-making in a way that can conserve biodiversity while still allowing for cultural self-determination.”

She encourages applicants to plan ahead when designing their projects. “There are lots of details to figure out for the application,” she said. “Having a good local collaborator at my research site helped a great deal at thinking through these details and what I need to prepare in advance for my research, and their continued support through the fieldwork was invaluable.”

For McLean, who currently works as a researcher with a science documentary production studio, the Young Explorer Grant not only enabled him to complete his doctoral fieldwork, it also opened a whole new network. “I’ve been able to now interact with a lot of the other Young Explorers through various events from National Geographic,” he said.
Zeng says the grant has also allowed her to share her research more widely. “I’m excited that the Young Explorers Grantgives me a chance to share my research more broadly with the public through National Geographic,” she said.