In Darwin’s Footsteps: How a Trip of a Lifetime to the Galapagos Inspired a Future Scientist

Uncategorized • June 13th, 2012 • Oliver


Visiting the Galapagos is an unforgettable experience for most travelers, but for the Malès family of McLean, Virginia, their Myths and Mountains trip to the Enchanted Islands had an impact that continues to echo through their lives.

Experienced adventure travelers, Eric and Barbara Malès, along with their daughter Billie, had already done a substantial amount of research on the Galapagos when they decided to work with Myths and Mountains. “We wanted someone with the expertise to guarantee that it would be a trip of a lifetime, but secondarily someone that really knew how to tailor the trip to our needs,” Eric explains. “Later as we got to know them we learned of their commitment to different areas of the world and discovered, for example, that they were very involved in organizing other travel companies to do conservation in the Galapagos.”

Barb adds, “Myths and Mountains has a special feeling – their drive to put you into the culture, to get you away from touristy places, to get you away from chain hotels, to really get you into the culture of the area and give you that unique experience.”

The Galapagos trip, which took place in February 2009, was everything the family had hoped for, as well as a pivotal experience for Billie, then a sixth grader. Although she had been intrigued by science since a young age, the Galapagos trip was the first real opportunity for Billie to explore this interest in depth. One of her favorite things about the trip was the Galapagos guide that accompanied the group. “We were on a really small boat, and the guide was available all the time for questions. I learned so much,” Billie says. “It was an amazing experience just because of how unique the wildlife is and how close you can get to what people are studying from worlds away.”

“Billie was like a sponge,” Barb remembers. “The Galapagos really highlighted in a very obvious way that this is living science. It was something you could do in life. It was life-changing in the sense that you can blossom in a trip like that.”

Coincidentally, Billie’s class at school began a unit on evolution shortly after the trip, giving her the opportunity to share much of what she had learned, as well as photos from the Galapagos. As she moved on to middle school, Billie continued to seek out opportunities to pursue her passion for science. With success in competitions such as the Science Olympiad, she realized she had the talent as well as the interest to do well in a scientific career.

With this in mind, Billie applied and was accepted to the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia, a highly selective magnet school that routinely ranks at the top of lists of the best U.S. high schools. Now 15, she is just finishing up her freshman year.

“I have a lot of different interests, and I’ve done many different events in Olympiad, but I haven’t had courses in all the different subjects,” Billie says. “That’s one of the reasons I applied to T.J. Going there is going to help me specialize and get an idea of what I might want to do.”

Her Galapagos experience continues to come in handy. “I did an event called ornithology at Olympiad, and the Galapagos is one of the best places in the world for birds,” Billie says. “Things keep popping up.”

Travel has always been a priority for the Malès family, who try to get in one “journey of a lifetime” every year – each one a learning experience. Even more obviously “touristy” places can be surprisingly interesting. For example, after their Galapagos trip the family spent a few days in Quito, where they made a day trip to Mitad del Mundo, a tourist complex located right on the Equator.

“There was this sort of cool science thing that happened that day too,” Eric relates. “They had a portable sink right on the Equator, and they dumped in leaves and pulled the plug. Right on the

Equator, the water went straight down. Then they moved it six feet and it went counterclockwise. Then they moved it back to the other side and it went the other direction. It was an old sink on legs. Very hokey but unbelievably cool.”

Eric, Barb, and Billie recently made their second trip with Myths and Mountains, to Peru, where they enjoyed getting to know the local culture and seeing the magnificent landscapes and archaeological sites such as Machu Picchu. “A lot of people spend their money on cars and TVs. We spend it on tickets and hotels,” says Eric. He recalls a discussion he had with his parents back when Barb first got pregnant with Billie. “Somewhere in the course of things I said, ‘I hope we’ll be able to keep up our travel schedules and our child will be part of that. My parents kind of said, ‘No, your lives will change,'” he remembers. “About five years ago my dad said, ‘You know when I said that way back when? I was wrong.”