From creating blogs combining science and pop culture to being featured in National Geographic for her research on pouched rats, Danielle Lee, assistant professor in biological sciences continues her contributions to the world of science.
Lee grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, where she first found her love of agriculture.
“I didn't know it at the time, but I was kind of steeped in urban rural gradients my whole life, which is what I study now,” Lee said. “I didn't even realize how much of all that history and past I still bring with me.”
Lee said her passion for biology didn’t start in a classroom, but outdoors. Lee said her mother worked for the Park Commission in Memphis and often took her to work with her.
“In primary school, I didn't like science,” Lee said. “I felt really over my head, but I liked being outside and I liked animals, so if anything it just started with me spending time outside.”
Lee said she originally planned on becoming a veterinarian. She said after being rejected from veterinary school, she took biology classes at the University of Memphis to increase her chances of getting in.
“I thought if you like animals, a veterinarian was the only job available,” Lee said. “I had no idea the variety of career opportunities that existed.”
Lee said she learned that by being a biology researcher, she could still get to work with animals.
“I was always asking questions about animals. I always wanted to understand their behavior,” Lee said. “That was always my jam. I just had no idea that being an animal behaviorist existed.”
Lee said she was an agriculture major when she was an undergraduate student. She said when teaching, she takes a page from her agriculture professors and focuses on using plain language to explain concepts.
“It's true what they say, when you teach something, you learn it better,” Lee said. “Sometimes you learn it for the first time when you have to explain it to someone else, so it’s a good way of learning things.”
During graduate school, Lee worked at Normandy High School for a couple of years, as part of an outreach program. She said she noticed the students had mixed feelings about science, the same way she did at their age.
Lee said she and the teacher she was assigned to decided to start an after school biology club. She said many of the students who disliked being in class enjoyed the club because it gave them a more hands-on experience.
“The after-school club was kind of where we struck up a balance of introducing good materials and engaging students in science, but we took away the pressure of grades,” Lee said.
Lee said they decided to turn the after-school biology club into a summer program when the school year was wrapping up and many students wanted to continue learning.
Lee said their first blog was Urban Science Adventures, where she wrote up what the students were working on in the outreach program.
“The Urban Science Adventures was geared toward kids in their families, because it was about that type of after-school activities,” Lee said. “I wanted to have a vehicle for talking to adults about science topics.”
Lee said The Urban Scientist was a way to talk about science in everyday life and using pop culture to make it more engaging. She said she wasn’t able to keep up with the blog due to her many obligations, but the content is still there to look back on.
“What I do like about blogs is that a lot of this stuff still lives on in its archives, so the content is still out there and still really relevant,” Lee said.
Lee said after graduate school, she did postdoctoral research with a professor who had received a grant to study pouched rats in Tanzania.
“My focus was studying behavioral differences or personality in these rodents,” Lee said. “Essentially, I was asked to apply what I had already studied and known in field mice to this larger rat.”
Lee said she started working on this research in 2012 and continues to work on it today.
“They're really big rats, so they're about two and a half, three feet long from nose to tail,” Lee said. “They're really large so they can live over really, really large spaces.”
To study the pouched rats, Lee said she puts traps out to catch them, marks them, takes measurements and then releases them back into the wild.
“A lot of my bread and butter is doing what I call kind of short, really quick observational experiments,” Lee said.
Lee said the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged her and her graduate students to think outside the box. She said they’re using remote cameras to make observations.
“They detect motion and they record behaviors once they're in view, so we put cameras in places where they are likely to be, or we do things to attract them to where the cameras are and then we can record their behavior,” Lee said.
Lee said to this day, the research she has done on pouched rats remains one of the highlights of her career.
“I really liked being in the field,” Lee said. “It was a long field season and it was exhausting, but my last year, my postdoc, I got to spend almost six months in the field really doing all those labs, because I wasn't sure it was gonna be my last time studying pouched rats, so that was a great time.”
Lee said she finished her time in the field around October 2015. In 2017, she was selected as National Geographic’s Emerging Explorer, a program recognizing scientists, innovators and storytellers for their exemplary work.
“Thanks to the [National Geographic] program, I was able to finally go back, reconnect and do all those things and like, kind of get started, but be able to travel abroad,” Lee said.
Lee said being able to travel and do the same things she’s watched people do on TV as a kid has been a dream come true.
“I realized I use science to travel the world because I grew up dreaming about the world, but not actually being able to travel,” Lee said. “Science will take you a little bit everywhere.”
Lee said one of her goals for the future is to expand her research throughout more physical locations in the region and to be able to work with more high school students.
“I’m looking forward to working with high school students, again, during research, doing some of the local stuff, and kind of adapting new research spots, so creating these field research sites, but here along the area, working in partnership with communities to do some of these observations,” Lee said.