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Brendan Mullan Selected as a 2013 National Geographic Emerging Explorer

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Brendan Mullan Selected as a 2013 National Geographic Emerging Explorer

Brendan Mullan

15 May 2013

Brendan Mullan, an astrobiologist, science educator, and a recent Ph.D. graduate from Penn State, joins a roboticist, a glaciologist, a planetary geologist, an artist and an entrepreneur as one of 17 visionary, young trailblazers from around the world who have been selected as this year’s National Geographic Emerging Explorers.

National Geographic’s Emerging Explorers Program recognizes and supports uniquely gifted and inspiring adventurers, scientists and innovators who are at the forefront of discovery, adventure and global problem-solving while still early in their careers. Each Emerging Explorer receives a $10,000 award to assist with research and to aid further exploration.

Along with Mullan, the 2013 Emerging Explorers are conservation biologist Steve Boyes, conservation biologist Erika Cuéllar, anthropologist Jason De León, planetary geologist Bethany Ehlmann, archaeologist Sayed Gul Kalash, computer scientist and roboticist Chad Jenkins, wildlife filmmaker and photographer Sandesh Kadur, artist Raghava KK, humanitarian Lale Labuko, innovator and entrepreneur Tan Le, conservation biologist Andrea Marshall, geophysicist and glaciologist Erin Pettit, computational geneticist Pardis Sabeti, engineer and conservation technologist Shah Selbe, data artist Jer Thorp and adventurer and conservationist Gregg Treinish.

The new Emerging Explorers are introduced in the June 2013 issue of National Geographic magazine, and comprehensive profiles can be found at http://www.nationalgeographic.com/emerging.

National Geographic Emerging Explorers may be selected from virtually any field, from the Society’s traditional arenas of anthropology, archaeology, photography, space exploration, earth sciences, mountaineering and cartography to the worlds of technology, music and filmmaking.

“As National Geographic celebrates its 125th anniversary year and looks forward to embracing a new age of exploration, we look to our Emerging Explorers to be leaders in pushing the boundaries of discovery and innovation. They represent tomorrow’s Robert Ballards, Jacques Cousteaus and Jane Goodalls,” said Terry Garcia, National Geographic’s executive vice president for Mission Programs.

Mullan has been an active member of the science community from an early age. “I went on a school field trip to a planetarium when I was ten-years old. The lights dimmed, all these bright pinpoints appeared overhead, and I learned about how stars are born, evolve, and die; the mystery of black holes; violent supernovae explosions. I thought it was the coolest thing in the world and decided right there I wanted to know how it all works. I was so fortunate to have access to resources like that; I want to pay it forward to the next generation. What could be more fun and meaningful than sharing the majesty of the cosmos with everyone?”

He puts his passion into action at Penn State. Mullan is developing a course that challenges undergraduate students to consider issues like sustainability and humanity’s long-term survival via stories about a future universe where those problems are pushed to the extreme. The astrobiology summer camp he leads lets middle school kids perform experiments to look for life on distant worlds, hunt for planets around other stars, and try to figure out why we haven’t been contacted by aliens. “I try to bring in guest stars to reflect how diverse the scientific community really is—men and women of all ages and ethnicities—not just a bunch of white guys with beards. From sliding on 3-D glasses for a tour of our Milky Way Galaxy to playing games that show how habitable planets are formed, the kids really respond.”

Mullan’s distinctive flair for communicating science made him the 2012 United States winner of FameLab. The prestigious global competition encourages scientists to communicate their work to society as a whole in more effective and universally understandable ways. FameLab competitors must explain complex topics in just three minutes. Mullan caught the attention of the judges with quirky analogies blending pop culture and pure science. He compared gamma ray photons to fraternity brothers hurtling toward a party, giving cosmic fist bumps that turn energy into mass, and explained the absence of aliens around us through the perspective of a disappointed realtor trying to sell the Earth. According to Mullan, “The real winner at FameLab is science. It made me very optimistic about the future to see so many amazing people invested in science education.”

Mullan believes that scientists should reach out—reach out to school children, college undergraduates, folks in the neighborhood, curious Web browsers, and everyone in between. His research tackles some of astrobiology’s most complex questions, but his public outreach efforts bring astronomy and astrobiology out of the ivory tower to make science more accessible, engaging, and entertaining.

Read more about Mullan in the 2012 National FameLab Competition.


Tara Immel
Penn State
Caroline Braun
National Geographic
+1 (202) 862-8281


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