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.
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."
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.
"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!"