Ella Al-Shamahi – How to be a 21st Century Explorer; The Frontline of Scientific Exploration

Wednesday 3rd October 2018

On Friday 28 September, Lower 6 (L6) students gathered in the School Hall, excited and intrigued for the first guest lecture of the Queen Anne’s School L6 Academic Enrichment Programme.


This Academic Enrichment Programme, curated by Mr Jones, comprises of a series of lectures on a wide variety of topics given by speakers to the L6. The aim is to broaden horizons; enrich the girls in a cultural, moral, social and academic sense and to provide the opportunity to listen to an eclectic range of speakers.

The aim is also to encourage the girls to grasp the nettle and to deliver some lectures themselves – this will serve to develop their research and writing skills as well as their presentation technique and could be a forum for delivery of EPQs as well as simply gain the confidence to speak to an audience.


This first lecture in the Queen Anne’s School Lower 6 Academic Enrichment Programme, titled ‘How to be a 21st Century Explorer; the Frontline of Scientific Exploration’, was presented by Ella Al-Shamahi, an accomplished paleoanthropologist and archaeologist. She is also a scientific television presenter and stand-up comic, and her charisma, humour and passion for her work engaged our girls from the very start of her talk.


Ella opened her lecture by asking: “Who is afraid of something?” After a show of hands, and some interesting answers (including sharks, spiders, and A levels!), Ella then revealed that she was in fact afraid of heights.

Although Ella still has this fear, it has never stopped her from climbing mountains to explore hidden caves, once lived in by early humans across the world.


Another thing that Ella revealed has not stopped her becoming a famous scientific explorer, is the (unfortunately still often-heard) phrase: “Girls don’t do that”.

At this moment in Ella’s lecture, the atmosphere was clear that many Sixth Form girls in the room had also been told that phrase, and similar phrases, such as “A girl can’t be head of house” and “Girls can’t work in technology”, at some point in their life already.




Ella’s message was clear that we are still, even today, stereotyping girls and boys. She gave an excellent example of some magazines she came across, which inspired a to Hamleys, to try to get hold of things that she needed for an expedition; a tape measure and a head torch. The girls’ floor was very pink and was mainly full of dolls houses, and she could only find the tape measure within a sewing kit. On the boys’ floor there were many toys more related to adventure, planes, drones and she found the head torch and a more robust tape measure. Ella’s point was that girls are continually encouraged to stay at home whereas boys are encouraged to seek new adventures and to explore, and that this mindset needs to be changed.




Ella Al-Shamahi continued her lecture by sharing some amazing stories and photos of places she has explored, and discoveries she has made that could potentially change our understanding of human evolution. One example included a moment descending a mountain by ‘bum-shuffling’ and ended up right next to a land mine!


Ella’s next trip takes her to the island of Socotra which is between Yemen and Somalia and explained that it is important to carry out research in these unstable, hostile locations with disputed territories in order. Her dedication and enthusiasm for exploration and the endless hunt for human knowledge was evident throughout her talk, as was her passion to inspire girls to pursue all of their dreams, not just one, because they are more than capable of doing so.




To close her inspiring lecture, Ella left our Sixth Form students with some important questions to ask themselves:

“What do you want to do?

Can you dream?

Can you work hard?

Can you work smart?

Can you network?”

Reflecting on these questions, it is clear that Ella Al-Shamahi has proved that girls can do all of these things successfully, and so can our Queen Anne’s girls.


Our Sixth Form students left the lecture feeling inspired, and full of hope for the future:


“Ella’s lecture really explored areas that young people, like us in Sixth Form, are concerned about, and how we can pursue many of our interests, rather than just one thing.

It was really cool to have a role model like Ella telling us about her experiences as a female explorer!” – Celia C (L6)


“It was definitely outside of the box and helpful for non-conformative careers, I really enjoyed it! Ella really engaged the audience with her unusual lecture.” – Daria M (L6)


“The lecture was really good and really informative; I really enjoyed Ella’s talk!” – Sam C (L6)


Ella Al-Shamahi’s latest documentary “Body Clock: What Makes Us Tick?” with BBC Two’s Horizon will broadcast on Thursday 11 October 2018, at 9:00pm on BBC Two.

Read more information about Ella Al-Shamahi’s latest BBC documentary here.