Saturday, September 12, 2015

Women in applied science

The discovery of a new hominin species is making headlines around the world this week but what many people don't realize is that the excavation team that uncovered this historic find was made up of six daring women scientists! The fossils were found at the bottom of a cave system in South Africa; one of the scientists, Marina Elliott, said that their collection and removal involved "some of the most difficult and dangerous conditions ever encountered in the search for human origins.” Thanks to the dedication of these six women, people everywhere will have the opportunity to gain new insight into the development of our species.

Palaeoanthropologist Lee Berger learned about the fossils in Rising Star Cave in October 2013 -- as well as their location, at the bottom of a 36 foot long shaft that gets as narrow as 7 inches across. He put up an ad on Facebook seeking scientists with a background in archaeology or paleontology, but with a catch: “the person must be
skinny and preferably small. They must not be claustrophobic, they must be fit, they should have some caving experience, climbing experience would be a bonus.” He remembers thinking that “maybe there were three or four people in the world who would fit that criteria”, but within days he had 60 qualified applicants from around the world. He narrowed those down to six: Marina Elliott from Canada, Elen Feuerriegel from Australia, and K. Lindsay Eaves, Alia Gurtov, Hannah Morris, and Becca Peixotto from the United States.

Elliott, who was finishing a Ph.D. at Simon Fraser University when she saw the ad, was first on the scene. “I was predisposed to extreme environments,” she says. “Telling me that I’d have to do climbing, that it would be underground, and that it would be strange and potentially dangerous… it appealed.” Even still, she vividly recalls her first sight of the chute: “It’s a long crack, punctuated by shark-teeth protrusions. I remember looking down and thinking: I’m not sure I made the right decision." Given the difficulty and potential danger of the climb, Berger nicknamed the team “underground astronauts.”

During the 21-day excavation of the Rising Star cave, the team had to work carefully: “There was so much material and it was friable and delicate,” Elliott says. “And every day, we realized that we were pulling out another 40 or 60 fragments of this thing that was going to be incredible.” She and her five caving teammates excavated a nearly unheard of collection of hominin fossils: 1,550 fragments from at least 15 skeletons, representing a mix of male and female individuals. In the words of Ed Yong of The Atlantic, “To find one complete skeleton of a new hominin would be hitting the paleoanthropological jackpot. To find 15, and perhaps more, is like nuking the jackpot from orbit.”
Debate about Homo naledi’s age and importance in human prehistory, as well as the intriguing possibility that the bones are in the cave as a form of burial ritual, will be ongoing for years, but no one doubts that it represents an extraordinary find. Elliott has remained on the ground in South Africa where she is now directing the field operation and leading expeditions into other caves, eager to discover what else is out there. As she says, “We’re just scratching the surface."

You can read more about the all-female team of “underground astronauts” and this historic find on The Atlantic at

To learn about more trailblazing women of science from around the world, we highly recommend the new book "Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science -- And The World," for teen and adult readers, ages 13 and up, at

To introduce children to one of the world’s first paleontologists, Mary Anning, we recommend "Mary Anning and The Sea Dragon" for ages 5 to 8 (, “Stone Girl, Bone Girl” for ages 4 to 8 ( and “The Fossil Girl” for ages 5 to 9 (

For a wonderful book about six remarkable women whose curiosity about nature fueled a passion to steadfastly overcome obstacles to careers in traditionally men-only occupations, we recommend "Girls Who Looked Under Rocks: The Lives of Six Pioneering Naturalists" for ages 10 and up at

If your kids would like to try an excavation of their own, check out the Crystal Mining Kit for ages 5 to 10 (, the Treasures of the Earth Excavation Set for ages 5 to 9 (, and Smithsonian’s Diggin’ Up Dinos: T-Rex Kit for ages 7 to 12 (

For more of our favorite science toys for igniting your children's curiosity about the natural world, visit our "Science Toys" section at
And, if you have a Mighty Girl in your life who won't let any anyone tell her she can't do something because she's a girl, check out the "Though She Be But Little She Is Fierce" t-shirt -- available in a variety of styles and colors for all ages at

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