Breaking The Mold Of What A Scientist Looks Like
When Dr. Danielle N. Lee’s dream to become a veterinarian didn’t work out, she learned there were other ways to work with animals in science.
The following is an excerpt from No Boundaries: 25 Women Explorers and Scientists Share Adventures, Inspiration, and Advice by Gabby Salazar and Clare Fieseler.
No Boundaries: 25 Women Explorers and Scientists Share Adventures, Inspiration, and Advice
When biologist Dr. Danielle N. Lee was a little girl, in Memphis, Tennessee, U.S.A., she was curious about everything, but especially about animals. She had no shortage of questions about cats, dogs, and the wild animals she’d seen on nature shows like Wild Kingdom. “The questions I asked as a child were kind of the same questions I’m asking now,” Danielle says. “What are they doing? Why do they do that? How do they do that? I was always very curious.”
Danielle knew from a young age that she wanted to work with animals in her career. She decided to set her sights on becoming a veterinarian. “I didn’t comprehend that there were biologists or wildlife ecologists,” she says. “I literally thought all professionals who worked with animals were veterinarians. I had no idea the diversity of careers that were possible.”
Veterinary school, though, is highly competitive, and when Danielle didn’t get accepted, she decided to begin classes as part of a master’s degree program in biology. She hoped that would make her a stronger candidate when she applied the next time. After one of her professors read a paper she’d written as part of a weekly assignment, he encouraged her to turn it into a full-fledged research project. Her professor saw something special in her work. He said to her, “You ask good questions. You can really do this!” While Danielle thought a research project sounded like fun, she never imagined that the questions she’d been asking her whole life could lead to a career.
Instead of going to veterinary school, Danielle’s professor encouraged her to get a biology degree and become a college professor. Danielle could hardly believe her ears: “What!? You mean I’d get to study animal behavior all day? I’d get paid to watch animals!?” she asked him. His answer? Yes!
“To my professors in college, my teachers in high school—I was always asking, Why, why, why?” Danielle says. “Up until then, I thought the answers came from somewhere or someone else. But it was then that I realized I could answer my own questions.” It was a lightbulb moment for Danielle. She didn’t have to be a veterinarian to work with animals. She could be a scientist, or more specifically, a mammologist. She says she realized then and there, “This is what I want to do.”
Becoming a scientist wasn’t something Danielle had ever considered before, perhaps because she hadn’t seen scientists who looked like her when she was a kid. When she’d thought of a scientist as she was growing up, she’d pictured a white man. While there are more women and people of color in the field today, Danielle still deals with many people who have a specific idea of what a scientist looks like.
“Even when someone knows that a scientist will be coming by, I’ll show up and they’ll say, ‘We’re waiting on a scientist,’” she says. “I say, ‘That’s me. I’m the scientist.’ Even today, we still have to educate people that scientists come in different packages.”
Danielle wants to make sure young people know that there isn’t only one kind of person who can do what she does. As long as you are curious, ask questions, and want to investigate the answers, you can become a scientist. So, when Danielle was in graduate school, she helped organize an after-school biology club for high school students in St. Louis, Missouri. When it came to observing wildlife, most of the students felt that everything exciting and interesting happened in places far away—places none of them would ever get to.
“At that time, even I hadn’t fully registered the variety of wildlife that was literally right outside our door, and the science that could be done there,” Danielle says. “I’d spent most of my youth outside, and I could tell you the names of all the plants and animals in my neighborhood, but for some reason I didn’t think that could form the basis of a valuable scientific study. Doing outreach with these kids—that’s what got me to start looking more closely at the nature right in my own backyard.”
Danielle and her students began catching birds and “banding” them, which is what it’s called when scientists put a band around a bird’s leg—each with a unique set of numbers—to keep track of them and observe their movements over time. They also identified all the trees on campus and visited local nature areas, cataloging which species lived there. From this beginning, Danielle helped develop a summer research program focusing on urban ecology.
The outreach program inspired her to study urban ecology in her own research, too. After getting the program up and running and earning her Ph.D., Danielle began to focus her own work on mice, rats, and other backyard rodents.
“We want to understand how the same species can successfully live across so many different situations,” Danielle says. “Rodents are notorious for making a living out of anything. As a group, they’re tenacious and have done an amazing job of surviving.” Danielle and her colleagues study rodents that live in cities and rodents that live in rural environments. “We’re trying to understand what makes them the same and what makes them different.” It’s important work: Understanding rats and their lifestyles can help maintain the health of the people and communities who interact with them.
Today, Danielle works both near home—in and around the city of St. Louis—where she studies field mice, and abroad in Tanzania, where she studies giant pouched rats. In Tanzania, just as in the United States, Danielle feels her difference or “otherness,” but there it’s “a different kind of ‘other,’” she says. “There, I’m a woman doing [what is considered to be] a man’s work. And once I speak with them, they realize I’m not African either. Then they’re even more surprised! For many people, particularly in the rural parts, I’m the first Afro-American they’ve ever met.”
But despite these challenges, Danielle is determined. She is passionate about pushing past boundaries and inspiring young people of all back grounds to get engaged in science. Because for Danielle, science is a bridge that unites people, regardless of their differences, in investigating and discovering the amazing world around them.
Excerpt from No Boundaries: 25 Women Explorers and Scientists Share Adventures, Inspiration, and Advice. Copyright © 2022 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved.