Today, Dr. Danielle Lee — mammalogist and science communicator extraordinaire — will be honored by the White House as a Champion of Change for her work to support and accelerate opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math for African American students, schools and communities. Long-time followers of Your Wild Life may remember that Danielle shot and shared a video of her experience sampling surfaces of the Tanzanian field station where she lived and worked in 2012 for the Wild Life of Our Homes project.
We’re thrilled that she is receiving this special honor and thought it would be fun, in keeping with our Before They Were Scientists series, to check-in with her about what life was like as a middle school student. Read on to learn about her desires to be a medical doctor, her timely introduction to ecology and the time she received humbling advice from her grandmother. And hammer pants.
Lea: What did your parents want you to be when you grew up? What did they do?
Danielle: Self-sufficient and out of the house. Both of my parents were laborers. My dad was a tractor-trailer tire repairman. My mom had a few occupations. She was a Parks and Recreation leader until I was 8. She stopped working for several years and my siblings were born during this time. Later, she went to trade school to become a plumber and began working for the utility company as a valve maintenance worker.
Do any memorable classroom moments stand out from middle school?
I enjoyed survey lessons – where we listed different representative species of each phylum or order, then compared and contrasted traits across the kingdom.
What was your biggest worry in middle school?
Getting bad conduct grades. I was (am) a “Chatty Cathy” so it was incredibly hard for me to sit still sometimes and not socialize. My disruptive behavior earned me demerits for my classroom conduct, but my academic grades were usually superior.
What were your favorite subjects in school? Why?
English/Language Arts – I am a lingual thinker. I didn’t know that when I was young I learned to read early and I really enjoyed crosswords and word games. And I was a pretty good speller.
Is there something you learned in middle school that has really stuck with you?
Taking good notes. I started using different color pens to organize my classroom notes and highlight vocabulary words and key terms. I’m an avid note taker and when I have had to go back through my archives or research notebooks, I am always glad I kept note of details that save me time, money, and energy.
Were you in any clubs, have hobbies or extra curricular activities?
I attempted to participate. I went to school across town and caught the city-bus. Plus, clubs and extra-curricular activities were costly. Transportation to these activities was an obstacle for me. Plus, my family didn’t have the extra money to pay for uniforms and trips.
Did you ever think you would become a scientist? What did you think scientists did all day?
I didn’t. I wanted to be a medical doctor. I thought scientists wore white lab coats and poured liquids into flasks and beakers all day.
How did you get into science?
I wasn’t really into it in school. I wanted to be a doctor – medical or veterinarian. My science grades were okay but I was not at all spectacular.
I attended Natural Resources Career Camp after graduating from high school. I realized then that I like more hands-on, outdoors science. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was my introduction to ecology. I’ve been hooked on organismal biology ever since.
What do you think your middle school self would be most surprised about, considering your life?
That I work outside and I don’t run screaming in terror from bugs. I liked going outside, but I wasn’t into camping and roughing it. I’m still no fan of it, but I can do it with (psychological) preparation. Actually, I love field work. I’m still not a fan of bugs and other crawling things, but I tolerate it to do what I enjoy – Mammalogy.
When did you go to your first concert and what band or artist was playing?
I don’t remember. My mother was always going to outdoor concerts in farmers’ fields. But the first concert that I went to on my own: I was 17 and it was MC Hammer. Can’t Touch This! And yes, I wore hammer pants.
When you were a child, what did you dream of becoming one day?
I thought I would become a doctor – a medical doctor. I watched a lot of medical drama television and thought the lifestyle was demanding but exciting.
What were some of your favorite books growing up?
I liked reading biographies of historical women figures. I loved the Childhood of Famous Americans biography series.
How much did you play outside? Where?
I played outside a lot. I played in the front lot of our apartment complex, my grandparents backyard and city parks. My mom was a Parks & Recreation worker, so I went to work with her and played outside ALL day.
Did you collect anything?
I collected four-leaf clovers and lightning bugs. I made garlands from dandelion flowers and clover grass flowers.
Did you ever have a professional crisis? Did you ever think about throwing in the academic towel?
Yes. My 3rd year of my Ph.D. — my animals just started dying off. I was afraid to touch my subjects.
I didn’t collect any data for a year.
I didn’t want to quit but I wasn’t progressing either. I was stuck and really depressed, I think.
Why or when did you decide to become a scientist?
I decided to become a scientist as I was completing my Master’s degree. Throughout school I always asked my professors questions about animal behavior. No one ever game me answers that sufficiently satisfied me. I realized that the skills I was learning and acquiring in graduate school actually equipped me to answer my own questions. I no longer needed anyone to tell me the answers. I could figure it out myself. When I realized that, I knew I wanted to be a scientist.
What fascinated you as a kid?
Watching flocks of birds fly in the sky. I was so curious about the zig-zag formations and movements and breakaways and re-formations of blacks birds flying. I always wondered if they were flying like that as a deliberate dance or because they were in dispute as to which direction to go and who should be the leader.
How often did someone tell you that you were wrong? Are there particularly memorable occasions?
My grandmother’s response was my favorite: “Little girl, they could build a whole new world from what you don’t know.”
Did you often feel bored as a kid? What did your parents do when you said this?
Not often. I was told to entertain myself. I read books, listened to the radio, did crafts and talked to myself.
What were your favorite outside play places?
I loved playing at the park. My neighborhood park was this huge place with all kinds of different spaces. It had woods – two sets of woods – one with pine trees and another with hardwoods, mostly sweet gums. There was a playground and an open field.
Did you ever feel that you were somehow different from other children?
Yes. I was a grammar kid. I was always correcting other children’s grammar. Proper subject-verb agreement chapped me even then. But I was always on the nerdy-studious side, so kids teased me for it.
Did you get into trouble at school?
Not really. I ran my mouth a lot, but other than that, no.
Dr. Danielle N. Lee is a self-described “biologist and hip-hop maven” who specializes in ecology, mammalogy, evolution and animal behavior. She writes “The Urban Scientist” for the Scientific American Blog Network and communicates about science while being inspired by hip hop culture to connect with underserved groups. On February 26, 2014 she was honored as a “Champion of Change” by the White House for her outspoken support of creating diversity and access to STEM fields. Follow her on Twitter @DNLee5 .