She helped unlock mysteries of one of earth's most remote, beautiful places.

Reading this is almost enough to make you dizzy:

"The Cessna wheels over a blowing whale. My passengers, both marine mammal researchers, peer down a wing at her. She blows again. Twisting the airplane's control, the horizon wobbles in the windshield and then suddenly tilts sharply. ...


Next to me, the researcher hangs farther out the open window, her hair lifted like Medusa's snakes. 'Oh look!' she says, pointing. The blue whale gives one last blow, kicks up her fluke, and dives. ... The researcher jots something down in a notebook and then quickly reaches into the backseat for a plastic bag. Few people have the stomach for this kind of flying and I carry a supply of zip-lock plastic bags. ... Opening an Oxxo bag instead, she turns to me and politely asks,'Would you like a cookie?'"

— Sandy Lanham


Wildlife pilot Sandy Lanham wrote this about her work flying over one of earth's most remote, dramatic places.

Thanks to her, we know a lot more about the incredible creatures that live there.


Humpback whale mama with her baby, taken during a flight with Sandy. ©Florian Schulz/ visionsofthewild.com.

The Sea of Cortez (aka the Gulf of California) is chock-full of sea life. But for a long time, no one knew what all that marine life was doing.

Jacques Cousteau called it "The Aquarium of the World." Blue whales, fin whales, gray whales, hammerhead sharks, whale sharks, marlin, Humboldt squid, and five different species of sea turtles frequent the gulf. But no one knew much about how all those marine creatures were behaving. It's a big place and hard to get to. Most researchers who traveled there had to hug the coast in boats, just dipping their toes in. Wildlife biologists were desperate to learn more.

The Gulf of California lies between Baja and mainland Mexico. Image via Wikipedia.

In 1990, Sandy Lanham had been living in Arizona and was trying to figure out what to with her life. She'd worked with children and had been a flight instructor, a belly dancer, and a print salesperson. What next?

She loved wildlife and she loved flying. As a girl in Michigan, she would lie on her back, looking up through the trees, watching airplanes go by. She had recently acquired a very small, very old plane — a 1956 Cessna that she said was the oldest model still in the sky.

"Bad paint. Good heart," she said of that plane. She nicknamed it Emily. Image by Kaye Craig, courtesy of S. Lanham.

Then The Nature Conservancy contacted her. They desperately needed a pilot to fly a wildlife recon mission. It changed her life.

Her first flight was an eye-opener. They were looking for endangered pronghorn antelope in Mexico. The numbers of pronghorn were very low, and the only way to find them in an area that big was to survey from the air.

During that flight, she learned that researchers of all kinds of wildlife in Mexico were eager to learn more about the Baja peninsula and the Sea of Cortez. There was very little money for wildlife research in Mexico, and no one had access to airplanes to do surveys from the air. Sandy realized she could pair her love of flying with her love of wildlife and fill this gap.

In 1991, Sandy founded Environmental Flying Services to get scientists up in the air, flying after the wildlife they so much wanted to understand and help.

The beginning was hard. Researchers helped out with fuel costs, and she wrote grants to foundations to cover her expenses. "I even resorted to going into restaurants and stealing toilet paper," she remembers.

The first proposals she wrote were turned down. "I was just too weird," she told me. " A woman, wanting to fly a plane, in Mexico, to survey a bunch of different wildlife — it didn't fit in anyone's funding categories."

Finally, she landed a couple of small grants for a few thousand dollars each, which helped her convince other funders that she had a lot to offer. Ultimately, with their help, she flew over 10,000 hours with wildlife researchers and photographers (sharing the costs for about $4.5 million worth of research flights).

Sandy's flights allowed photographers to take photos like this one of fin whales grabbing a snack. ©Florian Schulz/visionsofthewild.com

Sandy helped unlock many mysteries about Baja's wildlife.

She helped researchers discover new prairie dog colonies in northern Mexico and develop recovery efforts for endangered pronghorn antelope, and she helped us learn that the Sea of Cortez is a nursing ground for blue whales, the first such nursery ever discovered. She also saw rare events, such as sperm whales ramming heads.

Getting a head count on pronghorn antelope. Gail Collins/U.S. FWS.

As one researcher put it, "without her, we don't fly."

Sandy was awarded a MacArthur "Genius Grant" in 2001 for her dedication to getting hard (what she calls "crunchy as krill") data on all kinds of wild animals. This data is critical for protecting the incredible animal life in the gulf.

Blooming amapa trees near Manzanillo, Mexico, seen on a search for leatherback sea turtles. ©Carl Safina.


Avocets wheel over the Midriff Islands, Gulf of California. ©Luis Bourillon.

In her 24 years of flying with Environmental Flying Services, Sandy Lanham helped us discover critical information about earth's creatures and what we might do to protect them. She's an aeronautical ace and a diplomat, connecting passionate people on both sides of the border and creating a culture of respect and environmental teamwork across the U.S.-Mexico boundary.

Thanks to her work, gorgeous pictures like this one exist for us all to enjoy:

The Pinacate, ancient volcanic mountains in northern Mexico. ©Jack Dykinga.

Hats off to you, Sandy!

In 2015, Gravity Payments CEO Dan Price had a life-changing epiphany.

Price, who founded Gravity with his brother in 2004, was out hiking in the Cascade Mountains with his friend, Valerie. She told him her landlord had raised her rent by $200 and she was struggling to get by on her $40,000 a year income. Price, who was making $1.1 million a year as CEO of Gravity, was struck by her story. Not only did he feel for Valerie—a military veteran working two jobs and barely making ends meet—realized that some of his own employees might be facing similar struggles.

And they were. One employee frankly told him his entry-level salary was a rip-off. Another employee had secretly been working at McDonald's outside of work hours to make ends meet. So Price decided to make a drastic change by investing in his employees.

He researched how much money the average person would need in order to live comfortably and settled on $70,000 a year. In one fell swoop, he dropped his own salary to that amount, while also making it the minimum salary for anyone who worked at Gravity.

The move drew media coverage—and dire predictions from pundits. On Fox News and other conservative outlets he was called "foolish," a "socialist" and a "lunatic of lunatics." Rush Limbaugh called the company policy "pure unadulterated socialism" that was "going to fail" and should be a case study in MBA programs on how socialism doesn't work. Talking heads predicted that his employees would end up in the welfare line.

Six years later, Price has proved the haters wrong—by a lot.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
True

Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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