‘I Will Not Be Vole Girl’—A Biologist Warms To Rodents
The path to becoming a scientist is not unlike the scientific process itself: Filled with dead ends, detours, and bumps along the way.
Danielle Lee started asking questions about animal behavior when she was a kid. She originally wanted to become a veterinarian. But after being rejected from veterinary school, she found a fulfilling career as a biologist, doing the type of work she always wanted to do—but never knew was possible for her.
Science Friday producer Shoshannah Buxbaum talks with Dr. Danielle Lee, a biologist, outreach scientist, and assistant professor in biology at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville in Edwardsville Illinois about what keeps her asking questions, what rodents can help us understand about humans, and the importance of increasing diversity in science.
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Dr. Danielle Lee is a biologist and outreach scientist, and an assistant professor in Biology at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville in Edwardsville, Illinois.
ROXANNE KHAMSI: This is Science Friday, and I’m Roxanne Khamsi. Each week, we bring you conversations with some really impressive and thoughtful scientists but rarely do we talk about the journey that it took for them to get where they are. The path to becoming a scientist is not unlike the scientific process itself, filled with dead ends, detours, and bumps along the way. Sci-fi producer Shoshannah Buxbaum is here with me now to share with us a conversation she recently had with a biologist whose career took an unexpected path to studying rodents. Hi, Shoshannah.
SHOSHANNAH BUXBAUM: Hey, Roxanne. I got a chance to speak with Dr. Danielle Lee, a biologist, outreach scientist, and also an assistant professor in biology at Southern Illinois University. I was first introduced to her work when she was featured in a book for tweens called No Boundaries, which profiled female scientists around the world.
And since she was a kid, Dr. Lee has been asking questions about animals. Why do they do what they do? And she originally wanted to become a veterinarian, so I started off asking her how she went from applying to vet school to becoming a research scientist.
DANIELLE LEE: In pursuit of trying to go to veterinary school, I had applied and been rejected and had been still encouraged to continue applying and to improve my grades. And I was just taking classes at the University of Memphis. I wrote a paper in my animal communication and cognition class that the professor said, this is a project. I was like, serious? He said, yeah, you could do a whole project and be done in two months.
I was like, really? I could just do a whole project over the summer? He’s like, yeah, you should switch to thesis. I wasn’t even a thesis student. I was just taking classes.
Side note, it took longer to two months to do that project. [LAUGHTER] He got me.
SHOSHANNAH BUXBAUM: It always does. It always takes longer.
DANIELLE LEE: By the fall, when I was reapplying for vet school, I really realized I was really into the research. I was like, wait a minute. I’m really enjoying this. And I wondered why– and I was like, you know what?
All the time I was a child, in school, and college, I was always curious about animals. I always loved animals. I was always interested in animals. And so my interest in becoming a vet was because of that.
And to be honest, I didn’t know that there was other careers you could do if you were interested in being– if you’re interested in animals. I thought you could be a vet, or you could be a zookeeper, which I’m going to be honest. In my young mind, I didn’t– I couldn’t tell you the difference between those two things either, you know what I mean?
SHOSHANNAH BUXBAUM: Mhmm, mhmm.
DANIELLE LEE: I realized then, wait a minute, this is how I get the answers to the questions I’ve been asking, and no one has given me a good answer yet. Like, I was always like, you still haven’t given me a good answer. I was always asking, tell me why animals do that. Why are animals doing that?
And I thought it was as simple as you can just give me a straight answer. And then I came to realize there are no straight answers. There just aren’t. They don’t exist.
And a lot of the answers I was looking for hadn’t– probably hadn’t been asked yet. And that’s when I realized, wait, this is what science is? This is what this is? I can have a career at asking questions and answering my own questions? I can finally just do the thing I’ve always been interested in since I was four or five years old, tell me why that animal is doing that?
The light bulb went off. I said, then that’s what I want to do. But being rejected was the best thing that ever happened to me.
SHOSHANNAH BUXBAUM: And so you did it, and you got your PhD. And you followed your dream. And so I want to talk a little bit about your research, which focuses on rodents, which are very underappreciated creatures. So what led you– of all the different animals to study, what led you to rodents?
DANIELLE LEE: So the professor who got me started at the University of Memphis, Michel Ferkin, he worked with voles. And I thought he was mispronouncing moles. I thought I was hearing him wrong.
SHOSHANNAH BUXBAUM: [LAUGHS]
DANIELLE LEE: And I was like, he meant moles because what is a vole? I never heard of this in my life. And then I realized, oh no, he meant vole. I had never heard of the word in my life.
So voles are field mice. They’re little cute, cute, little field mice with little stubby, chubby bodies and short, short tails. And that’s important because what most people think of as mice, like house mice, they have these scrawny necks. That’s the thing that you really want to– scrawny necks and long tails, so you have scrawny neck, longtailed mice. And then you have little robust body, short-tail mice.
Now, the project that he convinced me to start doing based on the paper was with the meadow voles. Meadow voles, you can ask them really interesting questions about their communication because, during their breeding season, they’re a little bit kind of everyone for themselves. Everybody is on their own. They mate, and then they kind of go their separate ways.
And then they hope to bump into each other again when receptivity comes back around, which is about every three weeks for a particular female. And the females can be super competitive and very, very disinterested in one another, super, super disinterested in one another during the breeding season. But then once the fall comes and the days get shorter and they’re no longer breeding, that all changes.
They turn from I don’t want to see you to, hey, girl, what are you doing this winter? You want to overwinter together?
SHOSHANNAH BUXBAUM: [LAUGHS]
DANIELLE LEE: Come over. We can eat roots and just keep our body temperature together. It goes from that, like big time. It’s weird. But it’s fascinating. I was fascinated by that.
And so that’s how I got started with rodents because that’s what was in the lab. And I knew I was interested in these questions about social interactions. I was really interested in aggression. How is it that some animals win, always seem to win, seem to be on top? What’s that about? I started pursuing my PhD with someone else who worked with voles.
SHOSHANNAH BUXBAUM: Just on the vole track.
DANIELLE LEE: I was on the vole track, and the thing is I had told myself I will not be vole girl. I will not be vole girl. I got into this game because I wanted to work on like lions and tigers and bears and wolves. I wanted to do sexy megafauna.
SHOSHANNAH BUXBAUM: [LAUGHS] Yeah, the sexy megafauna, that’s what we all want.
DANIELLE LEE: We all want that. Then I just– what happened is I realized I was good at it, and I wanted my early inclinations that I had a knack for it is that, when I had to go trap animals and get more, it was at a time where everybody else was having a hard time across the nation getting animals. And somehow, I had gotten them.
And so then I– now, I have a reputation among folks who study voles as, if you need voles caught in, y’all, call her.
Instead of fighting being vole girl, I just went for it. I was like, you know what? I started seeing the benefit of working with a backyard species, working with something that was always there that was right up under our nose. And then I started learning about different species, and I was like, you know what? This gives us an opportunity to just start looking at how these different rodent species are negotiating life, not just in the wild but in the wild in proximity to people.
And then for a post-doc, I got invited to do my postdoctoral research on the giant pouch rat of Tanzania and got into that research because it’s– talking about sexy megafauna, you’re talking about a rat that’s the size of a house cat–
SHOSHANNAH BUXBAUM: Oh my gosh.
DANIELLE LEE: –that has been successfully trained to sniff out and detect landmines. And then also they can also sniff out and help detect to diagnose tuberculosis. The rats were being successfully trained, but the breeding was still kind of hit and miss.
So there was some basic natural history and ethology, biology questions about the pouch rat that still needed to be sussed out. And that’s where I came in. So I got to apply all the things that I had learned with the voles, working with wild populations of animals, and then trying to ask very specific questions about their behavior and their exploration and their behavioral tendencies.
SHOSHANNAH BUXBAUM: And so obviously, rodents have interacted with humans since the beginning of our history. What does studying rodents and how they behave teach us about our world and our ecosystems?
DANIELLE LEE: This is how I see it. Rodents, particularly the rodents that have made a living off of us and near us, tell us so much about ourselves. There’s not been– there’s not been a single human culture across time, across geography that has not had to contend with rodent infestations. So rodent nuisance are a part of the human history. Even before we came together in these big cities, even before we were agriculturalists, before we started making cultivars, rodents were right there.
And so they tell us so much about how to survive, how to find food, how we make a living, how different species depend on one another. We’re still dealing with rodent issues. They’re the key to understanding what potential next disease is going to come out because they’re the ones closest to us.
They’re the vectors. Things can spill over from them, or they can carry them on their backs. And then that thing infects us. The Black Plague? The rat didn’t give us the Black Plague. They carried the fleas, and the fleas gave us the Black Plague.
And so understanding their behavior and their ecology helps us understand how to solve problems. We know that rodents are a problem for people, whether you live in the rural area, whether you don’t live near a lot of people, or if you stay near a lot of people in urban areas. They’re a problem either way.
And what we see is that sometimes it’s the same species that can make a really interesting living in both the city and the country and the wild. But then other times, some species do better than others. And so I’m finding myself really, really interested in the scientific study of city mouse and country mouse.
SHOSHANNAH BUXBAUM: I want to pivot a little bit because part of your work is also in diversifying science and who becomes a scientist. I want to talk a little bit about our educational system, the pipeline of how people become scientists. So how does the inequity of our educational system fail Black and brown and Indigenous future scientists that want to answer some of these big questions that we’ve just been talking about and thinking of different questions and different ways to go about it as you have?
DANIELLE LEE: So here’s the first thing that I think most people don’t realize. The cumulative knowledge we have in the world right now, it’s all based on individual people’s personal curiosities. There is no agenda. There is no agenda.
So everything that we have that’s been codified by this modern system, it’s all because of a lot of people’s personal curiosities. I study what I study because it’s what I want to do, And so everybody else didn’t think about who’s overrepresented in those texts.
And what we’re saying unintentionally– and I’m being generous– is that those are the people whose questions that matter. But it’s also sending a message to Black and brown and Indigenous kids, those are the only people who’ve ever asked good questions, and we know that is a fundamental outright lie. Everybody, since the beginning of time, has been asking questions.
Black, brown, and Indigenous people around the globe have not only been asking good questions but have sussed out the answers to a lot of important foundational things. But they’re not credited in those books in the same way. We could just do better at our citation practices and giving credit to the fact that groups of people, especially groups of people who we know have uninterrupted, contiguous histories for thousands of years that are solid, who have good histories and reliable and consistent analysis and data about how the world works– we know that the Indigenous people of Australia, they told us things.
We just– western science just finally figured out the age of a mountain that Indigenous Australians have been telling them is 65,000 years old. It’s 65,000 years old. In other words, there’s so much out there about the world that we either haven’t been able to help get the word out about or inspire people to find those answers because we’ve been unintentionally– or maybe intentionally, but I’m going to be generous– saying, there’s only one way to science– and that’s just fundamentally untrue– and there’s only certain people who are particularly good at it. So we’ve been ignoring all this rich, fertile bed of questions.
SHOSHANNAH BUXBAUM: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. In the book, you talk about how sometimes people are surprised to find out that you’re, in fact, the scientist they’re waiting for because of these systemic issues that we’ve talked about that have prioritized mostly white men of being scientists. And that’s the stereotype that we have for who a scientist is, and as a Black woman, you don’t fit that stereotype. So how has that– how have these experiences shaped your approach to the work that you do, especially because you also do outreach as well?
DANIELLE LEE: It really makes me think about who I’m doing science for. So I’m doing science for me because I enjoy it. It’s how I make a living. But I’m also doing science because I recognize, deep down inside, I am ministering to my younger self, that I want– I recognize that the younger me wishes I existed, that someone like me existed, that I can look up to and be like, this is real. This is who I can talk to. I see what it is, and then that person or that type of person is accessible to me.
But it’s not just important to younger versions of myself. It’s also important for– it’s important for all kids to see that. It’s important for young white kids, young white kids from really well-off families to know that this is what a world looks like that’s plural so that they aren’t surprised when they see someone in leadership who shows up, who doesn’t necessarily look like them.
It’s about more than just simply getting some people to say, oh, we got a few that made it. We’re trying to fundamentally change the fact that all of us can participate. We don’t all have to be PhDs to be scientists, but we all absolutely can be scientists. We all can be artists.
It’s not an either or. It’s a yes and. And I’ve even– I hear, when I go into communities and I talk to folks, especially folks who are like middle age or older, they were like, I always like science. And I thought I wanted to do this. I’m like, you still can.
SHOSHANNAH BUXBAUM: Yeah, you still can.
DANIELLE LEE: And I think that’s the thing that surprises them. They’re like, wait, what? I’m like, you can. You can do it literally right now, right this moment. You want to start a project? We can do this, this moment. You don’t even have to wait.
SHOSHANNAH BUXBAUM: And to close, what advice do you have for the next generation of scientists, whether that be people that pursue master’s degrees, PhDs, or people that are rediscovering their connection with science or just other ways to get involved in science in their everyday lives?
DANIELLE LEE: It’s all right to start exactly where you are. There’s this perception that you’ve got to go get something more before you can get started. Nope, you can start exactly where you are.
It reminds me of a quote at Tuskegee University, lay down your book. It’s where you are. And that’s because this idea that there’s something to be done right here in this moment.
You have everything you need right now to get started. And like any endeavor, you get started. If you need more, you go get it. Social media gives you direct access to scientists.
Many of us are on Twitter or on Instagram. You can start following and engaging folks right now. You don’t have to do anything big and fancy all at once. It’ll come to you.
That’s usually how science is. It’s not all things at once. It’s one little thing at a time. And then like I said, it’s all– all these textbooks started with just people’s personal curiosities, and it all accumulated. It will all come together.
SHOSHANNAH BUXBAUM: Yeah, I love that, and I think that’s a wonderful place to end our conversation. Dr. Danielle Lee, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me and to– [AUDIO OUT]
DANIELLE LEE: Thank you. I’m excited. Thank you.
SHOSHANNAH BUXBAUM: Dr. Danielle Lee is a biologist, outreach scientist, and assistant professor in biology at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, Illinois, and I’m Shoshannah Buxbaum.
Shoshannah Buxbaum is a producer for Science Friday. She’s particularly drawn to stories about health, psychology, and the environment. She’s a proud New Jersey native and will happily share her opinions on why the state is deserving of a little more love.