Animal behaviorist Danielle N. Lee didn’t plan to become an activist for change in the scientific community, but by writing about her experiences with discrimination in the work place and advocating for inclusion, she has become one of the leading voices on diversity in the sciences. Her posts for the Urban Scientist, her blog on Scientific American, address issues of classism and racism in a field that’s long been considered a paragon of objectivity.
Currently a Visiting Assistant Professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Lee teaches mammalogy and biology.
How did you get interested in science and animal behavior?
I was a kid who liked playing outside and bringing stray animals home. If it was cute and cuddly I brought it home – mostly dogs and cats. It’s a miracle I wasn’t mauled.
Did that help you learn about animal behavior?
I was learning about animal behavior all along. My mom worked for the local park commission. Between the ages of four and seven I spent a lot of time with her outside. There was always someone watching me, but I had a lot of opportunity to wander in the parks on my own. Early on I started wondering about the flight patterns of birds. They seemed to be going in one direction and then switch. I’d wonder why and who was the leader.
How did that interest turn into a field of study?
I didn’t start doing science proper until college, where I was a pre-vet major. I thought if you liked animals you became a veterinarian. I didn’t know about the other options. I was studying a pre-vet curriculum until I started doing research as an extracurricular class assignment while in graduate school, then I realized I loved doing research and I could become a college professor and study animal behavior.
Did a mentor or peer encourage your decision to pursue a career in STEM?
My family has always been very supportive. They’re proud of my studies. When I expressed an interest in science and animals as a child, I was encouraged to become a veterinarian, so that's what I pursued in college. They provided me with a secure home so I could focus on my studies one hundred percent. I was never forced to choose between my studies and earning money or contributing to the household. Many young people today are unable to pursue their dreams in science — not because they lack mentorship or opportunity, but because they lack the ability to fully focus on their studies and make the needed connections to get that big opportunity.
How can the scientific community encourage more minorities and low-income students to pursue research and careers in STEM?
There have always been science research opportunities for kids at universities to participate in. But these mentored science research programs often go to kids from posh neighborhoods. When I was at the University of Missouri St. Louis, the programs were so selective that many of the kids from the school district I was mentoring in didn’t even apply. Even when kids displayed amazing acumen, it was difficult. I went to an administrator and said, “I’ve got this kid,” and when he heard what school the kid came from, he said, “Well, it’s very competitive.” Just hearing what school the student was from, the administrator discouraged her from applying because the program is just “too competitive.”
I wound up creating a parallel internship program called Fear Factor — Future Ecologists As Researchers — focused on students who wouldn’t normally make it into the traditional path but still had a lot of promise. When you don’t have kids from certain school districts even applying to the main program because they don’t know about it, or they’re getting a lot of non-verbal communication that they don’t qualify, it leads to students not participating.
How can technology support students from low-income backgrounds?
It's important, not because technology is the great equalizer, but because that's how we're accessing information now. Quick access helps students get a jump up in this fast-paced society.
What are some of the big issues on the Urban Scientist blog?
I’ve spoken about diversity and access and inclusion in science. The science we do needs to be welcoming to all and respectful of people who come from historically disenfranchised and marginalized communities.
What reactions do you get when you write about those topics?
I get a lot of thank yous, particularly from people of underrepresented groups. I get emails from young women of color who are in graduate studies in science, trying to figure out where they fit in and whether they should stay in science or not. I also get pushback, particularly from people who would fancy themselves as allies, who believe in the myth that science is open to everyone and objective.
What do you hope to see from the students you teach?
I’m really excited to see them entering the work force, whether it’s a STEM-related job, communications, or policy and politics. Having a scientifically literate electorate is so important. I hope they understand that science is a tool that can help them make decisions in life whether they choose to do science professionally or something adjacent to science.
What advice would you have for people who want to support students of color?
I would discourage people from focusing too much on GPA. It’s one of those “objective” measures that still reinforces disparity and who can participate in science. By overemphasizing these “objective” metrics we may miss those students who have interesting questions and innovative ways of looking at the world, which is ultimately what science is about.
Consider those students who are facing barriers. Eliminate all of those barriers and then see who comes to the STEM opportunities offered. For example, if you’re organizing a summer program, include the cost of an all-summer bus pass and see what happens to your applicant pool. That’s what I encourage a lot of organizers to do, to rethink how you recruit and how you make opportunities available.