ARUN RATH, HOST:
Now, for the latest installment of our series My Big Break about career triumphs big and small. Mireya Mayor is a primatologist and correspondent for National Geographic. Her job plays out like an adventure movie - diving with great whites, rappelling down cliffs, even being charged by guerrillas. But you'd never guess what Mayor was up to before her life of extreme reporting.
MIREYA MAYOR: While I was in college, I was an NFL cheerleader for the Miami Dolphins. And I took this anthropology class really by accident, because I had to take a science requirement. I was on a very different path to becoming a lawyer. And anthropology was available and fit my schedule. And it was during that class that I realized that that's what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
I left cheerleading and headed straight to South America. I mean, literally, I cheered at my last football game and then a week later, was on a plane to Guyana. You know, had to give up the pom-poms and trade them for field boots. (Laughter).
It was just this beautiful, natural, green abyss of impenetrable forest. Monkeys jumping everywhere and macaws flying overhead, and we would park this canoe at night on the side of the riverbank, climb out and basically machete our way in. And at the time I - not only did I not have a passport, I'd never been camping.
About four months into the expedition, I started noticing that my hands were swelling. And then spontaneous wounds started appearing and red streaks started going up my leg. I had a systemic blood infection, and if I didn't get out, I was going to die. So I had to literally hack my way through forests, and I was able to get back to Miami just in time, because I basically had a few more hours to live. But after 10 days of being in the hospital and on IV antibiotics, I spent those 10 days planning my next expedition. So that tells you something.
I was in Madagascar studying the larger-bodied lemurs with a colleague of mine. And we decided to set out these small mammal traps to see what else was in the area. So we were doing a biodiversity survey as well. And one rainy morning, I took one of the mammal traps in and I peeked inside of it and these two giant eyes stared back at me with this tiny, little body. I mean, it's basically all eyes.
It looked familiar because there were two species of mouse lemurs known at the time. But this was just a very different looking critter. And lo and behold, it was a brand new species to science - world's smallest mouse lemur, weighs less than two ounces, fits in the palm of your hands. I mean, it was complete elation. First of all, when you go into the field of science, you secretly have a dream that you might discover something someday, but you don't really expect to.
I was now armed to be able to request a meeting with the prime minister and the president of Madagascar. And this tiny little mouse lemur got me in the door. I was able to bring in maps of the area and point out that it lives in this very remote area, and only there. And we were in urgent need of protecting that forest. And they agreed to have the government of Madagascar be so supportive and declare the area a national park.
This tiny little creature became a huge ambassador for all things wild in Madagascar. That's a pretty big break. (Laughter).
RATH: Primatologist Mireya Mayor. You don't have to discover new species to have a big break. Send us your story - mybigbreak@NPR.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.