Interview Three: Meredith Johnson from The Leakey Foundation

Well here we are! Interview three and one that I know many of you are very excited for as am I! Our inside look and chance to talk to the famous Leakey Foundation! An organization that has done such good for the world of human evolution that it will be logged in the annals of history for all time!

We had the pleasure of speaking with Meredith Johnson, Communications Director at The Leakey Foundation, someone we have been in contact with for a few years now, host of the Origin Stories podcast and general person extraordinaire, she was very happy to provide us with this interview so please, do enjoy.

Above all I hope that you learn something, and possibly even help in the goals of this foundation, goals which are shared by this organization.

Meredith Johnson

Communications Director

The Leakey Foundation

  1. Please take a brief moment to describe your organization and its mission statement. 

The Leakey Foundation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to answering the big questions about what makes us human. 

Our foundation was formed in 1968 by a group of people who were inspired by Louis Leakey. They were fascinated by the research he and Mary Leakey were conducting and they wanted to support them and other researchers. 

Our mission is “to increase scientific research, education, and public understanding of human origins, evolution, behavior, and survival.” We’re working to fulfill that mission in several ways. 

We fulfill the ‘scientific research’ part of our mission by funding multidisciplinary research, supporting graduate students from around the world, and providing emergency funding to keep long-term primate research sites going. We fulfill the ‘public understanding’ part of our mission through things like our lecture series, our free school outreach program that brings scientists into classroom across the United States, and our Origin Stories podcast

2.What is the biggest project that you guys are funding or working on that you can tell us about?

We currently fund around 60 research projects every year. All of them will help add to the world’s collective knowledge about human evolution and human behavior so it’s hard to pick one research project!

One large long term project we’ve been working on as an organization is the project of increasing the number of trained scientists from countries where fossils and non-human primates are located. We’ve been working on this since 1978 through a program called the Baldwin Fellowship. It started as a way of supporting students from Africa who were pursuing advanced degrees in subjects like paleoanthropology, geology, and primatology. The program has since expanded to support students around the world. We think it’s vitally important to empower people who want to study the prehistory or living primates of their own regions.

Another big project we’re working on is the digitization of our archive. We have fifty years of lecture recordings, photographs, papers, grant reports, and more. We are starting the process with our audio-visual collection. We’ve just received our first videos back and we’re excited to get them out to the public soon.

3.What can we do to help the efforts of the Leakey Foundation?

Thank you for asking that! People can help in so many ways. Reading this interview will help, as will following us on social media, listening to our podcast, and telling people about us. Because we’re a nonprofit, donations help a lot.

We are looking to build our group of sustaining monthly donors. If you care about human evolution and science, a small monthly donation will help fund important research, preserve endangered primates, and support students who don’t have a lot of other resources. Every donation will be matched by two generous sponsors so every dollar you give will be doubled!

4. Out of all the famous Leakey fossils, which is your favorite?

They are all so good! My personal favorite at the moment is a beautiful Miocene ape skull discovered by Mary Leakey in 1948 at a place called Rusinga Island. She named it Proconsul at the time (after a famous performing chimpanzee called Consul) but it’s since been renamed Ekembo, which means ape in the Suba language. 

This fossil is about 17 million years old and it was the first ancient ape skull ever found. It’s one of our very, very early ancestors from back before the split between the human lineage and all the other apes. I visited Rusinga Island in January and I stood on the exact spot where Mary Leakey discovered this fossil. It was a very powerful experience.

5. Is the family still involved with the organization?

Richard Leakey and Meave Leakey are members of our Scientific Executive Committee, which is a volunteer group of eminent scientists who review our grant applications and make the final recommendations for which grants we should fund. They’ve been involved in that capacity for a very long time and we are grateful.

6. Do you have any big plans for 2020?

We just launched two new grant programs and we’re excited to award the first of these grants. 

The Joan Cogswell Donner Field School Scholarship will give up to $2,000 to students who want to attend field school. This grant is intended to make field school affordable for people from the countries where field schools are located. 

The other program is the Francis H. Brown African Research Scholarship, a program in honor of the late Frank Brown, a geologist whose research helped establish the timeline for human evolution in Africa. He believed that African scientists should be given the same opportunities as Europeans and Americans to research our shared history. This fund is intended to help expand human knowledge and scientific interest in earth sciences and botany related to human origins by providing financial assistance to East African researchers and students in order to build capacity in the earth and botanical sciences in East African institutions.

7. Do you have any special plans for Origin Stories?

I absolutely love working Origin Stories. Interviewing scientists is the best part of my job because I learn so much and then I get to share it with people through the podcast. 

I’m working on several stories right now, including stories from interviews I recorded during my recent trip to Ethiopia and Kenya. The March episode will be about a group of hunter-gatherers who live in caves in Borneo. They are reaching out to the world for help to preserve their way of life and our podcast has the privilege of being the first media outlet to share their story.

8.Where does the foundation see itself in five years?

We recently celebrated our 50th anniversary. We’ve been funding research and sharing discoveries for five decades and we plan to keep doing what we do best! 

9. How is the Leakey Foundation supporting the education and active work in the field?

We support education in many ways. We have a free program that brings scientists to schools to talk with students about their work and share stories about what it’s like to be a scientist. We also provide public lectures at museums around the country. Our Origin Stories podcast is another educational resource we provide.

We support active work in the field by funding around a million dollars per year in research grants. These grants support paleoanthropology and primatology fieldwork and research around the world. Our funding helps start long term research projects, and it also helps keep them going. 

10. Why should we donate to the Leakey Foundation?

There are so many reasons! The first thing I’ll say is that understanding our history and our place in nature is important for our future as a species.

I can’t think of any other organization that lets you contribute directly to research funding the way we do. When you give to The Leakey Foundation, you are directly funding important scientific research. When the next amazing hominin fossil is discovered, you’ll know that you made it possible. It’s a great feeling. 

Another thing many people may not know is that a donation to The Leakey Foundation helps protect endangered apes and their forest habitats. Ongoing studies of primates in the wild are extremely effective for conservation. Our grants are critical for the survival of our closest living relatives. 

11. Tell us about the recent Australopithecus anamensis cranium discovery.

The discovery was made by Dr. Yohannes Haile-Selassie who is a Leakey Foundation grantee and the Curator of Physical Anthropology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. He’s an Ethiopian scientist who is said to be one of the best fossil finders in the world. He works in the Afar region of Ethiopia at a site called Woranso-Mille which he started with funding from The Leakey Foundation. 

In 2016, a local Afar worker named Ali Bereino saw a bit of a fossil sticking out of the ground in his goat pen. He came and told Dr. Haile-Selassie who at first thought it would be nothing, but decided to come check it out anyway. Haile-Selassie realized pretty quickly that there was something extraordinary there. It turned out to be a nearly complete 3.8-million-year-old Australopithecus anamensis skull. This discovery is important for several reasons, one is that it’s from a critical time period in our evolution, another is that it’s the first cranium of this species that’s been found, so it finally shows us the face of anamensis, a species that’s sometimes referred to as “Lucy’s grandmother.”

12. Do you think there is more out there to find?

Absolutely! Just look at the pace of discoveries over the past few years. Denisovans, Homo naledi, the oldest Homo sapiens, and the daughter of a Neanderthal and a Denisovan to name a few! 

There is so much more of our human story, just waiting to be told. Besides finding more fossils in more regions of the world, new techniques are showing how much more there is to learn from the fossils that have already been collected. 

13. What advice do you have for budding paleoanthropologists?

Read a lot and follow your curiosity. Reach out to scientists who do work you’re interested in. See if there are lectures at your local college or museum and try to attend. A lot of these lectures are free and they’re a great way to meet other people who share your interests. 

When it comes time to start a research project, apply for a grant from The Leakey Foundation!

14. Any special events coming up?

Our spring speaker series begins on March 23 in Houston with two lectures from Dr. Dean Falk. One is on the evolution of Asperger syndrome, the other is called “Brain Evolution from Lucy to Einstein.” We also have a talk on April 1 in New York and a film screening in San Francisco on April 21. Our May event in Chicago will be announced soon! You can learn all about these events at leakeyfoundation.org/events

15. What is the main, achievable goal of the foundation over the next decade?

Our work is like a never ending quest for answers to fundamental questions about what makes us human. Every grant we give and every scientist we support contributes to the world’s collective knowledge of our human story and there is always more to learn. This past decade has added thrilling twists and turns to that story. Over the next decade, we will continue the work. We will support scientists from around the world, we will fund their research and share their discoveries.

And there you have it! We oh so hope you enjoyed our interview! If you have any questions or comments please leave them down below!

As usual if you, or anybody that you know of would like to participate in our interview series, please have them contact me at sethchagi@icloud.com and we will get something set up!

For interview number four we will be talking with another institution do extraordinary things for the Anthropogenic community.

Stay tuned!

Seth

Published by sethchagi

I am a Paleoanthropology Student, so far with two degrees, in Anthropology and Human Behavioral Science, pursuing my PhD. I love to read (like a lot) and write, I love my family, and I adore anthropology! Remember, never stop exploring and never stop learning! There is always more to learn!

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