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  • Writer's pictureAshli Akins

Ode to the Comma-Careerist

Today is the final day of the National Geographic Explorers Fest (the first festival to be held virtually). As I reflected on why I felt so “at home” with people I had never met before, I realized why.

This is one of the only spaces in my life where I am not asked to shrink who I am and what I do - to silo myself so that I can be taken seriously. In both academia and my community work, I am constantly asked to label myself:

What is your profession?

In which discipline do you fit?

What is your “day job”?

But here, I am surrounded by other comma-careerists like me. And here, we are celebrated, not dismissed.

On Wednesday, for example, a group of panelists were introduced with the following titles:

Liliana Gutierrez Mariscal

Biologist, Conservationist, Community-builder

Ashley Lamb-Sinclair

Educator, Social Entrepreneur, Storyteller

Gab Mejia

Photographer, Filmmaker, Writer

Marcello Calisti

Engineer, Inventor, Robotics Engineer

Debora Trein

Archaeologist, Anthropologist, Grantmaker

These people are ridiculously cool. Rockstars. Understated overachievers in all they do.

Our Virtual Happy Hour that night included the most Nat Geo of DJ sessions imaginable, with Explorer Ben Mirin beatboxing to animal sounds that he had recorded in the field and under the sea (yes, really). We are a rare breed, us Nat Geo Explorers. As my colleague Michael Schrenk says, we are at once Nerd and Adventurer; we are stimulated by bats and robots and maps, while also summiting the highest peaks and diving into the darkest depths.

At National Geographic, we are expected to excel as comma-careerists. To not only thrive as researchers, but to then use that research to empower local and global communities to take action. And to inspire others by telling compelling stories and educating the next generation of changemakers.

These are, after all, the four pillars of the National Geographic Society: Science. Exploration. Education. Storytelling.

And so, here’s to my fellow Explorers.

To those who break down disciplinary walls to forge their own paths, understanding that the answer to their question lies in the in-between. To those who don’t in fact sit on the periphery of these conversations, but instead right in the middle of a convoluted Venn diagram, because collaborative interdisciplinary solutions are the only way towards more sustainable and equitable futures.

Here’s to the Explorers who become curioser and curioser as they wander through life’s wonders. To those who understand that we as humans know so very little about so much.

To those who can’t help but say yes to the next adventure. To those who take risks that our funders and parents (sorry mom!) may think are stupid. To those who fail, adapt, and persevere until they have found that missing piece of the puzzle.

Here’s to the Explorers who understand the responsibility behind the very word “Explorer” and their power and privilege as a “researcher.” To those who are collectively dismantling the academic system to decolonize research and redefine what it means to walk through life with an “explorer’s mindset.”

To the rock-stars who not only know how to research bravely and respectfully, but who can tell the stories of why their research matters in ways that change the very chemical composition of the hearts of decision-makers around the world.

To those who understand that it is only in the future generations that our work will continue, and that we ourselves will never actually see the fruits of that work. To those unicorns, the Teacher Explorers who inspire the not-yet-heard-of Ashas and Wades and Silvias.

To those who have figured out how to not only research but to also become crafty businesspeople, social entrepreneurs, leaders, and managers, in order to advocate for the communities, cultures, lands, and oceans they care so much about.

To all of you.

To you who have commas between your -ers and your -ists in order to dismantle the impossibly connected compartments of your hearts, minds, and bodies. Because you know that it is only together that they - and we - can fuel your grit and passion.

I see you and I admire you.

Ashli Akins

Interdisciplinary social scientist, social entrepreneur, community activist, writer, photographer | 2019 National Geographic Explorer


Top photo: By Anshela Paravecino Kehuarucho. Of me learning to herd alpacas at 4600 metres above sea level in Accopata, Peru, with Bartholomé, the baby sheep, in my backpack.

Bottom photo: Group photo of all of the Explorers who attended the 2021 National Geographic Explorers Fest.


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