The Explorer Academy Connection: Cruz’s mom is working on a way to use animal venoms to cure diseases when she dies in a mysterious lab accident.
The Truth Behind the Book: Zoltan Takacs tracks dangerous reptiles all over the globe. He describes an encounter with a giant snake in the Amazon rain forest—and shares how studying deadly venom could create new medicines.
“One night in the dark forests of the Peruvian Amazon, along the Madre de Dios River, I encountered an eight-foot-long bushmaster snake, the longest venomous snake in the Western Hemisphere. I had just managed to wrangle it into my bag so I could take it back to my camp to study when suddenly it shot out of my pack, inches away from my hand! I was not expecting such a rocket-style escape from my deep bag. It was a reminder that I've still got things to learn. For instance, that I needed to try a different bagging method!
“Since I was a kid, my dream has been to track and capture the most dangerous creatures in the world. I don’t just do it for fun though. Venomous creatures kill their prey with toxins, but many of those toxins could be used to create new medicines. That’s why I chase these animals. I help collect and study their toxins, which can hopefully be used to cure diseases and save lives.”
THE WILDLIFE CONSERVATIONIST
The Explorer Academy Connection: Cruz and his classmates are observing monarch butterflies in the woods when they encounter illegal loggers and must flee to safety.
The Truth Behind the Book: Hotlin Ompusunggu works to prevent illegal logging in the forests of Indonesia in Southeast Asia. She talks about stopping illegal loggers to protect habitats.
“Sometimes when traveling by boat to get from one village to another, I’ll see orangutans frolicking in the trees overhead. Cameras monitor their movements, and occasionally when we see them above us, it looks like they’re posing for a picture—it’s sort of like an orangutan selfie!
“The orangutan population in Indonesia is decreasing because of habitat loss, mostly from illegal logging. The forests provide natural resources like fruit, meat, and wood. Often loggers will try to gain these natural resources illegally, which is dangerous for people and animals, especially orangutans, which live mostly in trees. By educating illegal loggers on their impact and forming forest patrols with local people, we can create guardians of the forests.
“So I’m happy whenever I see one of these orangutan photos. It means they’re still there, like they’re saying ‘Thank you for protecting our homes.’ We only get one Earth. What happens in one part of any country affects the world.”
The Explorer Academy Connection: Mell, Cruz’s Micro Air Vehicle (MAV) drone, resembles a honeybee and is no bigger than the size of his thumb.
The Truth Behind the Book: Robert Wood is an expert in robots like Mell—robots that fly, robots you wear, squishy robots, tiny robots. He recalls the ah-ha moment when he figured out how to make a flying robot.
“Once I was in the lab trying to design an insect-size robot with wings. I was stuck. I needed to understand how a real-life insect moved.
“After my collaborators observed a common housefly up close, I learned that its wings weren’t completely controlled by muscles. A big part was simply how the wing was structured. Knowing that, I drew and built the wing designs for the robot. And guess what? The bot could fly! Now I always look to the natural world for inspiration.
“I think of robots as problem solvers; for example, a flying robot could be quite useful for things like search and rescue in dangerous environments. Each time my robotics team tries to use a robot to solve a problem and it doesn’t work, we redraw and rebuild. Eventually—after lots of tries!—we’ll build a bot that will solve the problem."
The Explorer Academy Connection: Cruz and his classmates study the skies in the Dark Star Planetarium on the Explorer Academy campus in Washington, D.C.
The Truth Behind the Book: Munazza Alam searches the sky for a planet that humans could live on one day. She discusses her hunt for what she calls the “Earth Twin.”
“I spend a lot of my nights at observatories atop mountain ranges using high-powered tele- scopes that are sometimes the size of a school bus. I’m observing faraway planets outside our solar system called exoplanets. By analyzing these exoplanets’ weather patterns, I hope to discover if any of them have atmospheres similar to Earth that people could one day survive in. You could say I’m searching for Earth’s twin.
“An ‘Earth Twin’ would be a rocky planet with temperatures that would support liquid water. We haven’t found one yet, but I do think we’re getting closer. The more we study the stars and their planets, the more we can understand what they’re saying. As an astronomer, it’s my job to keep examining the sky in the hopes that it’ll reveal new things about our galaxy and beyond.”
The Explorer Academy Connection: Cruz and his friends study climate change and its effects in the Arctic Ocean.
The Truth Behind the Book: Branwen Williams uses the ocean’s coral and algae to record climate change. Here she describes an encounter with black-tipped reef sharks in the Pacific Ocean.
“One time while I was scuba diving near the Philippines, I looked up to see a group of black-tipped reef sharks circling above me. It was unsettling to have one of the ocean’s top predators swimming over- head while I worked, but I needed to finish collecting coral to examine at the surface. Luckily the sharks were just curious—they don’t eat people.
“The coral I study are living organisms that grow hard, rocklike skeletons. The layers of the skeletons tell how old the coral is, sort of like the rings of a tree. By studying the changes in these layers, I can measure how the ocean environment has changed over time, from the temperature of the water to the nutrients it provides. If we listen to what the ocean is telling us through these coral layers, we can learn stories of its past—and maybe even what to expect from its future.”