How one expedition inspired more than tourism

By Brendan Hyatt

Nancy Hensel has always loved adventure. Her parents often recalled that, at age two, she packed her own suitcase for her first-ever trip to visit her uncle in Texas. Looking back on a lifetime of travel, which includes a whopping sixteen Earthwatch expeditions, adventures on every continent, and connections around the world, her story perfectly embodies Earthwatch's core mission: the power of connecting people with science.



Introduction to a lifetime of adventure

Growing up, Nancy didn't particularly enjoy science: she recalls that her high school advisor told her she shouldn't take any more science courses because she'd only received a C in biology. Decades later, after a successful career in early childhood education and academic administration, Nancy was chosen to serve as CEO of the Council on Undergraduate Research, an NGO that worked on science. She wanted to learn science by doing science, and an Earthwatch expedition seemed the perfect way to engage in fieldwork while experiencing another culture.

Soon, Nancy boarded a plane to Vietnam to conduct research on butterfly populations. As she counted these beautiful creatures, Nancy was struck by the variety of opportunities the Earthwatch experience afforded her. Not only was she conducting meaningful scientific fieldwork, but she was also connecting with people around the world. Besides interacting with the rich Vietnamese culture surrounding her, Nancy also collaborated with other volunteers and scientists to build lasting relationships.


Nancy Hensel excavates in Portugal.


(With Earthwatch,) you can feel like you're doing something that can be useful to the country you're visiting and also beneficial to the scientists on site.

To Nancy, this was what makes Earthwatch expeditions unique: the opportunity to engage with incredible people from around the world while contributing to important scientific research. Nancy did not want to experience the world solely as a tourist; she wanted to meaningfully contribute to the world while embarking on adventures.


Traveling the globe with purpose: From Vietnam to Patagonia

Since her trip to Vietnam, Nancy has had life-changing experiences contributing to science worldwide. Nancy has spent nights in a small cement box deep in Namibia feeding cheetahs, studied chimpanzees in Uganda, and just this last year, researched penguins in Argentina on Earthwatch's Trailing Penguins on Patagonia expedition. At the same time, she's built a network of friendships with Earthwatchers and scientists and developed a deep appreciation for everything that science can do.


These aren't things you can do as a tourist. They're special.

Nancy's recent experience on Trailing Penguins in Patagonia was one of her most memorable Earthwatch experiences. While tracking and studying Penguins in Patagonia, Argentina, Nancy noticed that one of the Earthwatch scientists had a soccer logo tattooed on his arm. In passing, Nancy mentioned that her grandson is a huge fan of Lionel Messi, a top Argentine soccer player, and the pair's conversations led to a lasting connection. Before Nancy headed home, the scientist handed her a gift: a Messi t-shirt with a note: "From one fan to another—and your amazing grandmother."

As an Earthwatch participant, Nancy has tagged owls in Arizona, uncovered ancient artifacts in Portugal, and taken many lasting lessons about the importance of science with her. Being in the field with the scientists made Nancy more comfortable navigating science and discussing environmental issues outside expeditions. 



Earthwatch expeditions: More than a travel opportunity

Meanwhile, as Nancy went on expeditions around the world, she found that her Earthwatch experiences were helping her integrate science into her professional life. As President of the University of Maine at Presque Isle, she took full advantage of opportunities to expand science there. When a geology professor came to her trying to create a massive, to-scale model of the solar system, Nancy supported community efforts to realize that vision, assisting in creating what is today the largest to-scale solar system model in the Western Hemisphere.


Woman holding an Owl for research purposes


Being in the field with the scientists made me feel more comfortable with science.



Nancy's story embodies Earthwatch's mission.

Earthwatch isn't just for people who already love science; it's for everyone. Whether you have an interest in the environment, an urge for adventure, or a desire to travel while positively impacting the world, an Earthwatch expedition might be for you! 


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