A Philadelphian in the Galapagos

How one shy student left the inner city to become a world-traveler photographer

“Usually when I think of the city I always think of buildings and police sirens. When I think about being in Ecuador I think about vast lands, mountains, and people….people that are just walking and smiling….”

Zyaira in Ecuador, a vastly different landscape than her native Philadelphia
Zyaira in Ecuador, a vastly different landscape than her native Philadelphia

I couldn’t hide my smile when I heard Zyaira say this. It was one of those moments every teacher lives for. For the last decade, moments like these are what I call my “bonuses”. While some people are paid in money for a job well done, teachers are not. We get something better. We get the reward of changing lives.

Let me back up and give you some context.

I am John Romano, you may remember me from such Sci-Ed guest posts as Science Education through Science Fiction and Creating Scientists in 140 Characters (Thank you Troy McClure). I once researched Komodo Dragon behavior for the Smithsonian, but I realized my calling was in creating future scientists instead of becoming a niche researcher. That was eleven years ago, and quotes like Zyaira’s above are the reason I have never looked back.

I teach at a private boarding school in Philadelphia, but one unlike any you have ever heard of: all the students are there on scholarship and they must come from a single or no parent, low-income background.

Now that we have been introduced, let’s get back to what’s important, Zyaira.

Zyaira was a student of mine. I have known her since the 6th grade, taught her biology in the 10th grade, and she rounded out her science career with my Evolutionary and Comparative Anatomy course in the 12th grade. She was a member of the Creating Scientists in 140 Characters class and it was through Twitter that she found the opportunity to travel to the Galapagos Islands with National Geographic to learn wildlife photography. She applied to the program, got accepted, and based on her financial need had the trip entirely paid for by National Geographic.

I want to let this sink in. A girl who grew up in one of the more dangerous and resource-deprived areas of Philadelphia at the age of 19 traveled to the Galapagos with National Geographic….for free.

Zyaira (on left) representing National Geographic at the Equator.

I was dying to sit down with Zyaira to talk about her trip and look at her pictures. She is a  quiet and soft-spoken individual by nature, so I bribed her with lunch and tea for her story and photos. Naturally my first question was animal-related.

John: “What was the first animal you saw when you got the Galapagos?”

Zyaira: “A blue-footed booby”.

I lost it with excitement. I could not believe a student of mine who has seen me perform a perfect blue-footed booby courtship dance in class actually got to see one in the wild.

Settle down John….

John: “Ok, tell me what your favorite animal experience was while there.”

Zyaira: “I was paddle-boarding and a seal came up and splashed me.”

Interview pauses while my brain forms a mental image of this quiet student paddle boarding around the Galapagos playing with seals.

I watched Zyaira tell me her story. This introvert barely spoke in biology classes and not much more as a senior. Her standard classroom presence was tightly seated in her desk, observing the class through glances rarely speaking. Unlike now. Now, her dialogue and body language seemed different. They weren’t the same as I remembered.

John: “Did you ever think…in your time growing up in Philadelphia that you would be paddle boarding, interacting with a seal, near the equator of the earth?”

Zyaira: “No, it was always one of those things that you think about, that you hope… that you say ‘oh man that would be amazing to do one day but you never think that you would actually do it’.”

I continued the interview…. but something was happening.

Remember, Zyaira grew up in a low-income neighborhood with high levels of crime, so much so that playing outside was not a viable option. Escape and experience came in the form of movies and books, not through vacations or traveling. Zyaira had never left the country, never been on a plane, and was never that far from the people she knew and loved. Yet here she was telling me about her interactions with animals – the same animals that Charles Darwin had interactions with – the same experiences I have only had through movies and books.

And it hit me: confidence.

The Galapagos trip wasn’t just a good experience for Zyaira, it was something much bigger. It was part of creating the knowledge that she belongs anywhere in the world, even photographing with National Geographic.

If you are reading this then you care about the education of our future adults, you probably have a role in their development, and you probably helped clear the path for Zyaira to get from the inner city of Philadelphia to a paddle board off the shores of the Galapagos Islands.

Each of us, whether we are teachers or scientists, need to do more than just fill students with content. We need to fill them with confidence, we need to encourage them to set their goals high and then give them the means to reach those goals. I learned very quickly as a teacher that the seemingly most insignificant things like a smile or a“Great job!” end up being a valuable brick in the student’s foundation as a confident and successful individual.


Zyaira with National Geographic filmmaker Greg Marshall.
Zyaira with National Geographic filmmaker Greg Marshall.

PS: There is so much more amazing content to this story.  I am  trying to gauge interest if people would like to see a  4-6 minute video interview with  Zyaira about this material. Feel free to leave a comment below or let me know via twitter @PaleoRomano


Author: Mike Klymkowsky

I am a Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder. Growing up in Pennsylvania, I earned a bachelors degree in biophysics from Penn State then moved to California and earned a Ph.D. from CalTech (working for a time at UCSF and the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic). I was a Muscular Dystrophy Association post-doctoral fellow at University College London and the Rockefeller University before moving to Boulder. My research has involved a number of topics, including neurotransmitter receptor structure, cytoskeletal organization and ciliary function, neural crest formation, and signaling systems in the context of the clawed frog Xenopus laevis as well as biology education research, leading to the development of the Biological Concepts Instrument (BCI), a suite of virtuallaboratory activities, and biofundamentals, a re-designed introductory molecular biology course. I have a close collaboration with Melanie Cooper (@Michigan State) that has resulted in transformed (and demonstrably effective and engaging) course materials in general and organic chemistry known as CLUE: Chemistry, Life, the Universe & Everything. I was in the first class of Pew Biomedical Scholars and am a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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