Study of a native professor

As an undergraduate English and philosophy major at the University of Miami, Mireya Mayor enrolled in Introduction to Anthropology simply to fulfill a requirement. She did not suspect it then, but that single course would ultimately change her major and career plans.

The course caught Mayor’s attention. Taught by Linda Taylor, it so enthralled Mayor that she decided to drop her English major and law school plans in order to major in anthropology and become a scientist.

Today, Mayor teaches anthropology classes at UM and is a scientist of rapidly increasing renown. She studies rare primates in the wild and National Geographic recently named her to its 2007 Emerging Explorers group. As an Emerging Explorer, Mayor will receive a $10,000 grant to help fund her field research.

Mayor estimates that she has spent approximately five months per year in the field in the past decade. She said that researching animals in their natural habitats around the world has become her passion.

“I’ve always loved animals-I grew up with a lot of different pets. I was always fascinated at zoos,” Mayor said. “I always had a real curiosity [about] animals and their behavior.”

Mayor is currently involved in efforts to preserve what is left of the rainforest in Madagascar. Less than 10 percent of the original rainforest remains there today. Many farmers practice slash and burn agriculture, which has decimated the forests. Mayor and others are working to educate the farmers about more efficient forms of agriculture.

“You can’t just create rules when you go to a place like this,” she said. “You have to create options.”

In addition to educating the locals about efficient agriculture, Mayor wants organizations to offer them jobs as guides and animal trackers. For instance, she envisions a Madagascar where eco-tourism is encouraged and the rainforest is able to recover.

A native Miamian, Mayor lives in the area with her husband, Roland Wolff, and their 16-month-old daughter, Emma Rey. Although still young, their daughter is well-traveled.

“She has more stamps on her passport than I had when I was 20,” Mayor said of her daughter.

Mayor is sponsored by the binoculars company Leica, which also employs Wolff. They met at a company event in England.

This semester, Mayor is teaching two courses: Introduction to Physical Anthropology and Forensic Anthropology. The forensic anthropology course discusses archaeological methods for excavating human remains.

“It’s basically a CSI or a Law & Order type of course,” Mayor said, laughing.

Mayor enjoys teaching at her alma mater and hopes to bring the level of excitement to anthropology that she remembers from Taylor’s courses.

“I remember sitting in the same seat that they’re in. It’s sort of reminiscent for me,” Mayor said. “It’s nice to think that I might inspire someone else to go out and do the same thing.”

Taylor is not surprised that she was able to steal Mayor from the English department. She believes that more students would be anthropology majors if they only knew more about it from their high school guidance counselors.

“[Anthropology] flies under the radar, but it’s a lot of fun,” Taylor said. “It didn’t even occur to me that she was an English major-I look at every student in that class as a potential anthropology major.”

Now at the front of the classroom, Mayor is enjoying life as an anthropology professor and a colleague of Taylor. Still, she sees herself first as a scientist and emerging explorer.

“I love teaching, but I love the rainforest and I think it’s really important to be out there,” she said. “It’s the only way to know what’s happening and what the local interaction is with the people and the animals and the surrounding habitat. As a researcher, I’m a firm believer in muddy boots.”

Hunter Umphrey may be contacted at