This post is part of an ongoing series of interviews with the 2017 class of National Geographic Emerging Explorers.
Biologist and outreach scientist Danielle N. Lee is one of 14 National Geographic Emerging Explorers for 2017. This group is being honored for the way its members explore new frontiers and find innovative ways to remedy some of the greatest challenges facing our planet. The 2017 class of Emerging Explorers will be honored at the National Geographic Explorers Festival in Washington, D.C. in June.
To most city dwellers, that rat burrowing in the trash is unsightly. To Danielle N. Lee, it represents a scientific frontier. Lee studies how small rodents behave both in urban and rural settings, from mating behavior to personality traits. In Tanzania, for example, she collected details about the African giant pouched rat that could strengthen programs aimed at using them to sniff out landmines.
A native of Memphis, Tennessee, Lee encourages urban exploration and increased diversity in science via her Urban Scientist blog at Scientific American. She also teaches mammalogy and urban ecology at Southern Illinois University as she continues her quest to understand “how animals make a living.”
You started out studying meadow voles. What got you interested in small rodents?
I never intended to be a vole researcher. At one point during my masters I was like, “I will not be vole girl. I want to study sexy species.” And I became vole girl. I ended up going into vole work because the professors at my university studied voles. They’re relatively easy to work with, and they’re readily available. They offer an opportunity to look at a lot of complex behaviors.
What I’ve also learned is that when you study animals that farmers don’t like, that makes you a very popular person when you need animals for research.
No matter how sophisticated, how industrialized, how technologically advanced we’ve become, these rodents—we can’t shake them. They’re still there. We’ve never been able to successfully and fully manage them across time, across geography, across culture. This has been a perennial problem for humanity. It didn’t matter if we were agricultural or urban. It didn’t matter if we were seafaring or focused on the land. We have never been able to shake rodents fully.
So understanding our most pernicious, non-pet familiars seems to be a really viable thing to examine. This beast has kept closely to us even when we didn’t want it to. So understanding it, I think, will give us a lot of answers to understanding ourselves, like our own habits, gives us better information for managing ourselves and our future, especially the limited resources we have.
Tell us about why you studied African giant pouched rats in Tanzania.
Everyone knows about them locally, but there’s a lot of basic information about them that we don’t know. I study these rats because I’m interested in their natural history and their behavior. I want to answer what’s considered the most basic of questions about their lifestyle: Where do they live, and how do they live, what’s their mating system?
I am an advocate for natural history research. It is one of those fundamental and foundational sciences that once upon a time was really popular. We don’t really rally around natural history work like we once did. Now the supersexy stuff in the life sciences is the molecular and the genetic—exciting, great stuff, but none of that exists without the whole organism. When you don’t know the whole organism but you know pieces of the organism, you miss really critical, important things about that system. Ecology is about appreciating and examining the whole context of the organism.
Your research could help inform breeding programs for the rats to be used for sniffing out landmines. What did you learn in that regard?
We’re still learning a lot. By not knowing things like when they become sexually mature, you waste a lot of time because they’re not successfully breeding—because you don’t know basic information, little, simple things like this.
I discovered quite unexpectedly that females have delayed sexual maturation. And by that I mean I discovered that until females were mature, their vagina was closed. There is no evidence of a vagina at all. I saw nothing in the literature about this, I got no information from the people who were working with them.
Is that unique to this species?
That’s one of the things we don’t know. The big problem with anything related to lady parts is, female biology has been woefully understudied. We know nothing about vaginas in general across the animal kingdom.
When we study a species, we study males. Males are the default. That’s why I’m happy I’m where I am to study this animal because I’m thinking consciously about that. I’m centering female biology in this research, because traditionally we center male biology.
You’re also studying rats in urban environments. What is your interest there?
Part of it is personally relevant to me, being a person who was born and raised in an inner city: Doing science that’s important and right outside my back door. I grew up watching all those nature shows and being excited about exotic faraway places. It took chasing that, and then having the opportunity to go to a lot of exotic faraway places, to remind me that I don’t need to necessarily travel away to find good science.
I was working at a high school as a National Science Foundation GK-12 fellow teaching science using ecology as the hook point. I wanted to be able to demonstrate to students that all the good stuff isn’t far, far away. There’s plenty of good stuff in your own backyard, in your own neighborhood park.
What do you think the world can do better to encourage more minorities to pursue STEM?
I would like to see media do a better job of showing role models from a variety of groups. I’d like to see people have some platform to talk about what they already know. What I do isn’t so much to convince people to become a scientist. It’s to clarify for them that they are already scientifically minded. And that’s pretty revolutionary, particularly when you think about working with students of color from under-resourced schools.
They are so well aware that they’re at the bottom of this and at the bottom of that. So I’m reminding them, or in some cases telling them for the first time, “You are inherently genius. You are the expert of everything happening in your neighborhood. All those birds you see flying around, those the rats in the back alley, you’re the expert.” Hands-on experiential learning is the key to really reinforcing those skills. I think that’s what’s missing.
If I want to know where to go in a community to actually study small rodents in inner city communities, guess who I need go to? I need to perhaps talk to people who we’ve long overlooked and don’t value as knowledge keepers, and that might mean the can man who’s rifling in the trash who we regard as a hobo. He probably is the most knowledgeable person about what’s happening in alley ecology. But we don’t give these people the benefits, we don’t give them the shine, we don’t defer to them in ways that we do to people with fancy letters behind their names. So I envision a more egalitarian way of doing science that respects and honors a variety of people for the knowledge that they bring to the table.
You originally wanted to be a veterinarian. What took you in another direction?
Oh, I got rejected—I applied to vet school three, four times and was rejected every time. So I started taking classes, still trying to get into veterinary school. I was in graduate school at the masters level just taking classes and a professor read one of my papers and was like, this is a great idea. You should do this as a project studying olfactory behavior in meadow voles. It started off as an extracurricular project over the summer and I loved it. Meadow voles became my master’s thesis.
The vet school called me to remind me that I needed to get my last transcript and grades in and I literally was like, who is this again? They were like, you’ve improved, you stand a good chance of getting in this year. I was like, never mind. I pulled my application.
I realized this was what I was always interested in. I was always asking my teachers and professors hey, why are those animals doing that? I learned a little bit here and there, but I never got any of my answers. While I was doing this research, a light went off. I was like, this is what I’ve always wanted to do. I’ll never have to ask another person to answer this question ever again. I know how to answer my own questions now.
Conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Want to become a National Geographic Explorer? Learn how you can apply for a grant from the National Geographic Society.