Documenting the Female Chiefs of Maewo Island

On a small island located west of Fiji exists an anthropological anomaly: a group of female chiefs. Maewo Island is the only country in Melanesia with female chiefs, who are called ngwotari.

Explorer Sophie Hollingsworth carried the WINGS Flag on an expedition to this island in the Pacific Island Nation of Vanuatu to document their practices. The women seek to gain official status from the National Council of Chiefs of Vanuatu, which they have previously been denied.

In performing the first and only ethnographic study on these women, Hollingsworth’s work may help the female chiefs gain official status.

During the festival, the women demonstrated their practices and powers, undertook grade promotions, engaged in traditional dancing and performed secret ceremonies, including the use of black and white magic. Hollingsworth also visited nearby villages to learn more about both female and male chiefs.

Hollingsworth participated in the local customs of sand drawing, water music, bird calling and constellation naming.

Initially she visited the island with a team; however, they left and Hollingsworth stayed alone on the island for an additional month.

Hollingsworth spoke about her experience at a recent Explorer Talk event hosted by WINGS WorldQuest. She demonstrated speaking Bislama, the local native language. She learned how to speak the language by taking lessons over Skype with a tribe member who formerly lived on the island.

“It’s not like there’s a Rosetta Stone for Bislama,” Hollingsworth said. “That would have made things so much easier.”

When asked what piece of information about her experience she would bring back to Americans, Hollingsworth answered: “There is more than one way of doing things.”

She touched upon this in her recently published flag report:

There is a troubling fallacy that pockets of communities practicing traditional culture unconsumed by technology and globalization are somehow leftovers of a past era. Nothing could be further from the truth. They are modern men and women who continue to defend their unique way of life and prove that there are other ways of interacting with the earth.

For more information about Sophie Hollingsworth’s expedition, see her full flag report here, or visit her website, The Sofia Log.

Subscribe to our mailing list or follow us on social media to learn about future Explorer Talks and other upcoming events.



5 Ways to Celebrate International Day of Women and Girls in Science

While women comprise 48 percent of the total U.S. workforce, they comprise just 24 percent of the science, technology, engineering, and math – or STEM – fields, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Women in science have made great strides over the last several decades, but the numbers are clear ... We have a long way to go.

In late 2015, the United Nations declared February 11 International Day of Women and Girls in Science to recognize the contributions of women to the scientific fields and to help empower women and girls to continue to transform the world. The need for science-based evidence in policymaking is increasingly crucial, and we know that women are part of the solution.

Here are five ways you can celebrate women and girls in science today:


1. Learn about a woman in science.

Though they have not always been recognized, throughout history women have made contributions to the fields of science and exploration. Take a moment to learn about women scientists throughout history and the 79 women who have received the WINGS' Women of Discovery Award since 2003.  

2. Sign the 500 Women Pledge.

Last year, a group of five women scientists drafted an open letter to reaffirm their commitment to inclusivity in society and scientific enterprise. More than 16,000 women from around the world have now added their names to the letter. If you are a woman in science, sign the pledge here.

3. March for Science.

On Earth Day, April 22, scientists and science enthusiasts alike will march in solidarity to support publicly-funded science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity.

Click here to march with WINGS.

Click here to find a march in your area.

4. Register your action.

If you take action, submit it to the official website, where you will be added to the collective voice on Parity in Science.

5. Support WINGS.

WINGS WorldQuest showcases the under-recognized discoveries and accomplishments of women explorers, promotes women working in the field sciences, and inspires the next generation of pathfinders. Since its founding in 2003, WINGS has provided more than $600,000 in unrestricted funding to women in science and exploration. You can make a tax-deductible donation to WINGS here.


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In Tribute to Vera Rubin

Courtesy of Carnegie Institution of Washington

Courtesy of Carnegie Institution of Washington

In the 113 years that the Nobel Prize has been awarded, only two women have ever received the prize for Physics: Marie Curie in 1903 and Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963.

This past October, a public furor ensued when the Nobel Prize Committee failed to award any women at all with the Prize. The outcry also inspired an unofficial online campaign to call attention to the Committee’s failure to recognize the contributions of Vera Rubin, a WINGS Fellow who discovered that the universe is comprised mainly of dark matter, an unidentifiable substance that is distinct from ordinary matter.

The call to recognize Rubin was urgent, as she was 88 at the time. Nobel Prizes can be awarded only to the living.

Rubin died on December 25. Although she did win other awards, many were critical of the Committee’s oversight and lamented that she would never be recognized with the Prize. (Not even Mahatma Gandhi was given the award posthumously.)

Even so, Rubin leaves behind a remarkable legacy in the way that we now understand the universe. But she was also a fierce advocate for women in science. She was a pioneer – at times, even a rebel.

Rubin grew up in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.; from the age of 10 she knew that she wanted to be an astronomer.

In a 1992 interview for the publication Mercury, she said, “I knew I wanted to be an astronomer. I didn’t know a single astronomer, male or female. Being a woman didn’t bother me at all. I didn’t think that all astronomers were male, because I didn’t know. I didn’t even know how you became an astronomer.”

When she received a scholarship to attend Vassar College, her high school physics teacher told her, “You should do OK as long as you stay away from science.”

She studied astronomy.

She married a physicist and had four children, two of whom were geologists, one of whom was a mathematician, and her only daughter, Dr. Judith Young, who died in 2014 at the age of 61, was also an astronomer.

In 1947, Rubin was denied admittance to the Princeton graduate school because women were not allowed to study there. Princeton didn’t allow women to study graduate physics until 1971, graduate astronomy until 1975 and graduate math until 1976, according to a talk Rubin gave at a 1990 conference on retaining women in physics.

She was the first woman to be legally permitted to observe at the Palomar Observatory in San Diego, California. Historically, observatories did not allow women; one argument was that they did not have the appropriate bathroom facilities to accommodate them.

In the same Mercury article, Rubin recounted a story about the bathroom on the ground floor of Palomar, which still bore a “Men” sign, nearly 30 years after she had first observed there:

“About two years ago, I sort of got annoyed at this ‘Men’ sign and I cut out a little figure with a skirt and pasted it up,” she said. “It stayed for the four days I was there, but it wasn’t there the next year.”

When asked why Rubin thought she was the first woman permitted to observe there, she said “Let me hope that the work I was doing was interesting enough.”

In 1976 when the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum debuted its first planetarium show, a feature on 200 years of American astronomy, it included only men, all but one of them white. After lobbying for months to have the presentation corrected, she was told that the show was recorded and could not be changed.

In her collection of essays, Bright Galaxies, Dark Matters, Rubin writes firsthand about astronomy, as well as women in science. At the time, women constituted less than 5 percent of all physicists and less than 7 percent of all astronomers. She notes that despite the contributions of both women and minorities to astronomy, there are limited opportunities for those groups to enter the field.

In her 1990 essay “Opening the Doors,” she writes at length about what can be done to encourage more women to work in science: she says that little girls need role models and that women students should not quit.

Despite knowing that obstacles lay ahead for women, she remained optimistic:

“For any who wish to be an astronomer, rather than marry one, and who are willing to work for it, I hope your lives will be filled with many options.”

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Uncovering the Remarkable Story of Escaped Slaves

Becca Peixotto.jpg

Deep within the coastal plain region of Virginia and North Carolina lies the Great Dismal Swamp, a habitat that was once home to thousands of maroons – people of African descent who fled slavery between 1660 and 1860.

Becca Peixotto, a PhD candidate and instructor at American University, safely brought home WINGS WorldQuest Flag #4 from the Great Dismal Swamp, where she spent the summer on an archaeological expedition. Her goal was to uncover the remarkable story of resistance and resilience of  African-Americans who had escaped from their oppressive conditions and sought refuge in the swamp.

Becca and her team began the expedition by using data from an aerial lidar survey and historical documents to visit areas within the swamp that might be islands. They then mapped the islands, studied soil profiles and did test excavations. They discovered fire pits, a possible cabin footprint and artifacts ranging from small fragments of glass and iron nails to ancient stone tools left by people before the maroons.

Peixotto documented the expedition on her blog, Swampscapes. In one post, she ruminates about the extreme hot and cold weather that both escaped slaves and enslaved laborers had to face:

We whine and wilt and and swat flies and try to drink as much water as we’re sweating out but at the end of the day, we go back to a shower and air conditioning. The enslaved laborers who battled heat, humidity and thick undergrowth to clear only 1300 yards of survey path in a day in the summer of 1769 didn’t have that option. The maroons who chose a life of relative freedom in the Swamp over a life of chattel slavery didn’t have that option. [...] Going to the Swamp in its full summer glory gives all of us, I think, a better appreciation of the strength and determination of the people we’re studying out here.”Becca Peixotto

Read more about Peixotto’s expedition in her flag carrier report. And learn more about the other brave women who carry the WINGS flag here.



Antarctica Expeditions Focus on Leadership, Landscape and Art

It was not until the early 1900s that humans first set foot onto the continent of Antarctica. Today it is still considered “the final frontier” for exploration on Earth, because of its remote location and harsh conditions.

This month, two expeditions to Antarctica will carry the WINGS WorldQuest flag.

Homeward Bound is an initiative that aims to elevate the voices of women in science in the hopes that they will play a large role in influencing scientific policy in the years to come. The organizers envision a 10-year initiative, through which they hope to reach 1,000 women in science.

The Homeward Bound team with the WINGS WorldQuest Flag. Photo courtesy of Homeward Bound. 

The Homeward Bound team with the WINGS WorldQuest Flag. Photo courtesy of Homeward Bound. 

These women, all with critical science backgrounds, are involved in a year-long state-of-the-art program to develop their leadership skills. The inaugural Homeward Bound expedition, featuring 76 participants, launched earlier this year and is culminating in a 21-day voyage to Antarctica that set sail from Ushuaia, Argentina on December 2.

Joanna Young, a PhD candidate studying glaciers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, is on Homeward Bound’s maiden voyage. Young said having the expedition comprised of only women helps create a collaborative, unified network of women who can support and bolster one another.

Many of the women work in academic disciplines that are competitive, but the expedition offers an alternative.

“It’s a non-competitive environment – we’re all collaborating and learning together and brainstorming ideas that will benefit the planet and people as a whole,” Young said.

Young told WINGS that one of Homeward Bound’s missions is to talk about sustainability and global change related to climate change. Antarctica serves as a motivating backdrop of a rapidly-changing environment for the voyage, as well as a sort-of “canary in the coal mine” for larger environmental issues.

WINGS Fellow Rosaly Lopes at Mt. Erebus

WINGS Fellow Rosaly Lopes at Mt. Erebus

“Antarctica has a strong history of explorers wanting to understand the lesser-known areas of the world,” she said. “It’s risky and might not seem that welcoming of a place on first glance because of its harsh conditions. For some, that’s a big deterrent. For others, that’s a draw.”

Antarctica can even help scientists understand worlds that exist beyond the Earth.

Volcanologist and WINGS Fellow Rosaly Lopes is in Antarctica on a month-long expedition to Mount Erebus, the southernmost active volcano on Earth. Lopes is completing a book project with astronomical artist and science writer Michael W. Carroll, focused on using landscapes in Antarctica to help readers envision what other worlds look like. Mount Erebus features one of the only lava lakes on Earth. Lava lakes are quite common on Jupiter’s moon Io, which Lopes has studied extensively with her work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“As an artist, he wants to imagine what it would look like if you were there,” Lopes said about Carroll. “I work with spacecraft data – I’m not thinking about what it would look like, I’m analyzing data from the images.”

The book will also feature accounts from Lopes and Carroll about what it was like to live and work on Antarctica. The project highlights the need to continue to protect Antarctica in the name of science – so far, strong environmental restrictions have prevented humans from contaminating the continent.

“It’s a good example for exploration, and maybe we should follow that on many other places on Earth,” Lopes said.



Global Crisis, Local Solutions

Photo by Takver on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

Photo by Takver on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

With temperatures and sea levels on the rise – and news that the newly named nominee to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is a self-proclaimed “leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda" – the world is at a critical point in the fight against global warming.

Many WINGS Fellows and Flag Carriers contribute invaluable research to the environmental movement in fields such as endangered wildlife species, ocean and river pollution, and climate change. They have spent their entire careers protecting our environment.

WINGS asked climate scientist and WINGS Fellow Dr. Beate G. Liepert what impact the new presidential administration will have on any progress toward climate change reform.

With uncertainty over continued U.S. participation in the Paris Climate Accord, and restrictions on energy production on public land and the Clean Power Plan, Liepert says “we have come too far” to allow “a revival of the coal industry, and expansion of fossil fuels that contribute to climate change and environmental decay.”

Liepert foresees progress on many fronts at the state level that will help advance renewable energy technologies and usage. Here is an excerpt of her observations:

In the November elections there were referenda on the ballots in states, counties and municipalities that were related to climate and the environment. For example, Washington State had, for the first time, a carbon tax on the ballot, which was rejected, but the next referendum is already in the works. In the greater Seattle region, voters accepted a public transportation bill. Although it didn’t pass (due to required supermajority), half of Floridian voters said “yes” to the right to produce and consume your own solar electricity.

Independent of what the new administration will do, it will be on the local and state level where environmental and climate initiatives most likely succeed. The majority of states already have some renewable portfolio standards and goals (see figure below). It will be impossible for the federal government to overturn these laws and regulations.

The tendencies of electricity production towards renewables has been going on for a while now. In the mountain regions the change in electricity generation away from coal over the past decade is shown below.


In the state of Iowa, wind provided 31.3 percent of Iowa’s total electricity generation in 2015, the highest portion of all states. New jobs are created in the cleantech industry every day. Heavy coal and gas subsidies would be needed to upset the development in the cleantech industry.

Lofty international goals may be in jeopardy due to redirected federal priorities.Concrete steps from the bottom up will be more likely to succeed if we all keep working hard on the momentum generated over the past years at the local and regional level.

As a climate scientist, I am optimistic that we will make significant progress towards a carbon free, sustainable energy future in the next four years, no matter what the direction of the federal government.

Dr. Beate G. Liepert discovered the groundbreaking climate change phenomenon of global dimming, which was also the subject of her master's and doctoral thesis. Skepticism of her theorem was so great that she was nearly denied her PhD. Her work was eventually recognized and ultimately cited by the United Nations Panel on Climate Change. She received the 2016 WINGS Women of Discovery Earth Award and was inducted as a WINGS Fellow in October 2016. She is the founder of Lumen LLC, which develops solar energy software.