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The MBA Naturalist

Corinne Heyning Laverty’s (MBA ’84) bestselling book explores an untold story of the Channel Islands 

August 13, 2020
Corinne Heyning Laverty MBA 84

Corinne Heyning Laverty MBA ’84 didn’t realize she’d made The Los Angeles Times bestseller list in March until a friend sent her a congratulations message on social media. Making that list is big news for any author. But considering that North America's Galapagos: The Historic Channel Islands Biological Survey, is Laverty’s first book, released earlier this year by University of Utah Press right before the COVID-19 shutdowns, it’s even more impressive.

North America's Galapagos is a narrative nonfiction book that recounts the never-before-told adventures and ambitions of a group of researchers, naturalists, immigrants and women explorers who embarked on the unprecedented Channel Islands Biological Survey between 1939 and 1941.

California’s Channel Islands are known as North America’s Galapagos, because like the Ecuadorian archipelago made famous by Charles Darwin, these Channel Islands are home to 150 plants and animals found nowhere else in the world.

“We like to call them North America’s Galapagos to highlight how special and unique the islands are,” said Laverty, who is an associate of the Santa Cruz Island Foundation and a member of the All Eight Club, a geographic organization that tracks the people who have set foot on all eight Channel Islands—all 229 of them.  

“My business degree helped me, because I just didn’t stop. In business, when you are presented with a problem, you keep working at it, creating new ways to approach it in order to achieve your desired outcome. In my case, I wanted to tell this story. Tenacity was important."—Corrine Heyning Laverty MBA '84

In her book, Laverty illuminates the scientific expeditions that the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHM) launched and which were aided by the USC Allan Hancock Foundation. Within the narrative nonfiction book’s pages, she does some exploring of her own in order to intersperse modern archaeology with this bit of untold history.

“I used the adventures and movements of the scientists from one island to the next as a mechanism for me to dig into each island’s unique history,” Laverty said. “I considered them characters, just as I did the people involved. This strategy allowed me to tell the readers things about the islands that we know today, but which the scientists from that time period did not know.”

North America's Galapagos was also selected by the California state library system in conjunction with Governor Gavin Newsom’s office for inclusion in a collection of books—either written by a California author or about California—to be displayed in the historic governor’s mansion.

Fascinating Characters and Beautiful Animals

Besides the scientists themselves, some of the fascinating historical characters featured in the book include the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island, on whom Scott O’Dell based his award-winning children’s novel “Island of the Blue Dolphins.” Art Woodward, the Survey’s archaeologist and historian, was captivated by this Native American woman’s true-life story, particularly her resilience that allowed her to live alone on the island until a sea captain brought her back to Santa Barbara 18 years after her people had been removed. Woodward’s interest in her life led him to photo document the sea captain’s journey as he searched the island for her, reassemble the Lone Woman’s whale bone hut, and photograph and pose Marion Hollenbach (MA ’42, archaeology), an archaeologist working with him on the Survey, inside the hut as a stand-in for the Lone Woman herself. It is noteworthy that Hollenbach and Barbara Loomis, another Survey participant, were the first trained female archaeologists to work on the Channel Islands.

“It was Woodward’s interest in the Lone Woman’s story that gave me the opportunity to reveal some of the remarkable new scholarship that is being discovered about her real life,” Laverty said. “There are many other parts of the book where I was able to interweave the Survey’s story with new research, with the result that not only was it fun for me to write, but I hope that it makes the story more relevant to modern readers as well.”

The Channel Islands’ most iconic animal is the house cat-sized Channel Islands fox. Descended from the mainland gray fox, it is a distinct subspecies on each of the six islands where it lives. “It’s funny to think of this six-pound little critter as the Islands’ top terrestrial predator, but they are,” Laverty says, “and they’re adorable. But what I like most about them is their fearless heart. You can sit on the beach or at a picnic table in the middle of the day, and pretty soon you are likely to see a couple of foxes wandering toward you, their kits in tow.”

Their status as a top predator did nothing to help them, however, from nearly going extinct in 1999 due to DDT and invasive species like golden eagles who replaced the islands’ native bald eagle population. Laverty says that their remarkable recovery and flat-out cuteness make them her favorite island animal. That is why they are featured on the book’s cover. (Readers will find an abundance of historic photos as well as beautiful illustrations and maps inside the book.)

Along with the stories of the history, people, flora and fauna of the islands, the book also includes research gathered from the Channel Islands that supports the Pacific Coastal Migration model of how North America was populated.

The Story Behind the Book

With an undergrad degree in business, Laverty began her career in aerospace and earned her MBA from USC at night. She then moved to banking, where she worked for three decades while filling her spare time writing freelance articles for newspapers and magazines.

Laverty’s late husband, a whale scientist, was director of research and collections at NHM and introduced her to a different world. “I met many scientists,” she said, “and loved that no one ever asked them, ‘where do you work?,’ but rather they asked, ‘what do you study?’ They look at things a little differently than a business person.”

When her husband passed away after a long illness, Laverty was juggling a part-time banking job and two young children, but she wanted to write a book. She approached NHM with an idea that wasn’t North America’s Galapagos.

“The museum archivist pushed these dusty archival boxes, labeled ‘1939-41 Channel Islands Biological Survey,’ at me and said, ‘This is an important story that has never been told. You should write this,’” Laverty said. “So, I thumbed through the office memos, photos, newspaper articles, handwritten and typed letters and fell in love with the people and the stories of the lives they lived on the islands.”

That exchange 10 years ago led to Laverty’s becoming a research associate at NHM where her work on her now-bestselling book began. She undertook additional research at the Smithsonian, UC Berkeley, the Library of Congress, UC Irvine and other museums, archives, libraries and historical societies.

The MBA Helped

It might seem a far cry from businessperson to research associate, but Laverty said her MBA came in handy. Those spreadsheets she used to keep all the characters and documents in order were not the half of it.

“My business degree helped me,” she said, “because I just didn’t stop. In business, when you are presented with a problem, you keep working at it, creating new ways to approach it in order to achieve your desired outcome. In my case, I wanted to tell this story. I read voraciously, attended scientific conferences, participated in scientific working groups, networked with experts in their fields who could keep me from going astray, and wrote, wrote and re-wrote. Finally, I researched publishers. That tenacity was important. Every little link in the chain brought something new to me, and that’s how you go about solving a business problem.”

“The scientists from the biological survey started something really important,” Laverty said. She explained that not only did the Survey bring a new level of rigor to archaeological investigations on the Channel Islands, but it created a flora and fauna library at NHM and other museums that continues to be used and built upon today.

“This survey has never been replicated, so what these men and women did stands alone in history, but perhaps even more important,” Laverty said, “is that the work they did gives us pause to remember that the scientific process continues long after individual efforts cease.”

Seal near Channel Islands

Channel Islands wildlife

A seal pokes its head up to say hello. One of the many photographs in Corrine Heyning Laverty's (MBA '84) North America's Galapagos: The Historic Channel Islands Biological Survey. 

Seal near Channel Islands

Channel Islands wildlife

A seal pokes its head up to say hello. One of the many photographs in Corrine Heyning Laverty's (MBA '84) North America's Galapagos: The Historic Channel Islands Biological Survey.