Over the next five weeks, we’ll be featuring the story of Matthew Cicanese, a CochlearTM Baha® recipient, National Geographic Young Explorer and photographer, who went on an expedition in August 2016 to Iceland with the National Geographic Young Explorer program. Matthew shares the sounds and sights of his amazing experience with us. Read part one below.
“Hi everyone! My name is Matthew Cicanese, and I’m a National Geographic Young Explorer and photographer! I’m unilaterally deaf in my right ear and monocular blind in my left eye (peripheral only). I’m a Baha recipient (activated in spring 2014), and over the next few weeks I’d like to take you with me on a journey to one of the coolest places on the planet.
Craters, mountains, lava fields and epic glaciers are just a few of the elements that make this place feel like another world. I’m talking about Iceland! I’m really excited to share my stories from the field with you from my expedition, but before I do that, I’d like to take you back to the year 1991 to get to know me a little. Let’s go!
I was born in 1991 in the Tampa Bay, Florida area. My first year was going well until I came down with an ear infection that I just couldn’t shake. I was nine months old, and what started as ‘just an ear infection’ quickly turned into a case of penicillin-resistant pneumococcal meningitis. Unfortunately, the meningitis vaccine wasn’t developed for the public until the year after I was sick. I was in the hospital for over a month (with half of my time being spent in the intensive care unit). The doctors told my family I probably wouldn’t make it, and if I happen to survive, I would more than likely have developmental issues, be completely blind and deaf.
Well I’ve been a fighter since day one. I battled for my life that month and managed to come out alive in the end. I had lost most of my year-one motor skills, half of my hearing and half of my sight. The road ahead wasn’t going to be easy by any means, but I wasn’t going to let anything stop me from living life.
I’d like to think I grew up somewhat similar to most kids. The main difference (besides my disabilities) were my accessories: a dual hearing aid with a connecting wire, bifocal glasses, and a huge, sticky eyepatch over my dominant eye (to try and strengthen my ‘weak’ eye).
I went to a public school, but I had to go to private occupational therapy a few times a week to help me with my speech issues and motor skills, like using scissors. I had friends in and outside of school and was involved in my community.
Among other things, I played soccer, learned karate, was a Boy Scout and eventually made it all the way to the rank of Eagle Scout! I loved to fish, swim, hike, bike, camp and most of all – climb trees! When I wasn’t exploring the outdoors with my older brother or younger sister, I was playing Super Nintendo® and watching shows like Bill Nye and Steve Irwin. Shows like that always inspired me to get outdoors, poke around, ask questions and dive deeper into science.
One of my favorite memories from growing up of being outside was when my brother and I would go ‘log flipping.’ We would go out in the woods at our house and flip over the rotting logs in search of cool bugs, snakes and lizards (lizards are everywhere in Florida!). When I got to college, you can probably see why I chose to study environmental science.
As a kid, I always loved to steal my dad’s National Geographic magazines from his study. I would grab a few and run across the house to my room, where I would spread them out over my bed and enter an almost-hypnotic state of awe as I flipped through the pages, reading adventurous stories of exploration, and gazing at the striking photography of the best photographers in the world. Whenever my dad gave me one, I would tear my favorite stories and pictures out to pin them to a wall in my bedroom.
When I turned 14, I got a pretty awesome Christmas gift from my uncle, a digital camera! It had a whopping 2.8 megapixels, a screen the size of a large postage stamp, and no specialized functions (like zoom or macro), but it was mine. I would never see the world the same again.
Before long, my camera was going with me on all my outdoor adventures in the backyard. When I discovered the ‘macro’ mode on my second more advanced camera, it opened up new worlds for me. I always loved using magnifying glasses to look closer at things out in nature, and now I could do the same thing with my camera and have a picture too. My love for ‘all things small’ (or what E. O. Wilson calls ‘The little things that run the world’) was enriched over the years by me using my camera.
After earning my Bachelor of Science in Environmental Studies at Florida Southern College, I went on to earn a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Experimental and Documentary Arts at Duke University. By 24, I had a strong passion for science, sharp eye for photography and a fire in my heart to go after my dream… National Geographic. After much preparation I applied for its Young Explorer Grant program in January 2016 and on March 2, my dream came true.
Next stop? Iceland!”