Danielle Lee: Urban Scientist, Hip-Hop Maven, Genius - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Carlos Watson, Dr. Alex Filippenko and Dr. Danielle Lee at the Chabot Space & Science Center, April 3, 2014.
SourceDaniel Salo


Because animal behavior scientist Danielle Lee is helping to save lives with giant landmine-sniffing rats — while shaking up the notion of who does science.

By Melissa Pandika

Danielle Lee hates bugs but adores rats — supersized, 3-foot-long rats. 

An animal behavior scientist at Cornell University, Lee investigates whether African giant pouched rats display behavioral syndromes, or “personalities,” that can be explained by genetic factors. These oversized rodents have the amazing ability to sniff out deadly landmines — and unlike dogs, rats don’t bond with their trainers, making them easy to transfer and handle. Knowing whether desirable personality traits, like obedience, are linked to certain genes means scientists can selectively breed rats that express them. “We can put together a pedigree of amazing landmine detection rats,” Lee says.

Lee also observes the landmine-sniffing rat program in Tanzania, gaining crucial information about how to raise them, such as the best cages and lighting conditions to use. Her research could help save as many as 20,000 of the lives lost in landmine explosions each year, and reinvigorate economies by freeing millions of acres of landmine-ridden land for farming and development.

Becoming a scientist meant I no longer had to wait for someone to give me the answer.

— Danielle Lee

But Lee is also on a mission to boost the number of minorities in science. At the The Urban Scientist, hosted at the Scientific American Blog Network, she blogs about her own research, STEM diversity and what she calls “science you can see in your backyard” — from camel crickets to crabapple trees — even in the inner city.

Lee argues that including more minorities in science would bring the expertise needed to tackle environmental injustice, housing disparities and other problems in underserved neighborhoods. And it might make science more empathetic, ending the days of ivory-tower types researching these communities and then abandoning them.

At a Q&A session hosted by OZY in Oakland, Calif., Lee took the stage in killer orange pumps, a red silk hibiscus flower tucked in her hair. She spoke evocatively about her childhood, every now and then letting out a throaty laugh that seemed to bubble up from deep inside her.

Raised in South Memphis, Tenn., where her mother worked at the local parks, Lee loved hunting for four-leaf clovers. Every summer, she spent hours prowling through the grass, her clothes sweaty and streaked green. Soon, she started to make her own scientific “discoveries.” She realized that clovers often clustered near sprightly white flowers — clover flowers — which in turn, attracted honeybees. So she used clover flowers and honeybees as clues for where to find the coveted lucky charms.


Lee made more sobering discoveries about the socioeconomic divide, commuting from her apartment — where four generations of her family lived — to a college prep school across town. Dreaming to be middle-class, Lee majored in animal science at Tennessee Technological University, where she studied to become a veterinarian.

But Lee never earned more than a C in her biology and chemistry classes. And she was rejected from veterinary school three years in a row.

A Belgian NGO known as  APOPO is already training these rats to detect landmines in Tanzania, Mozambique, Thailand, Angola and Cambodia.

Nontheless, she kept reapplying while earning a master’s degree in vertebrate biology at the University of Memphis, until a professor encouraged her to turn a paper she wrote into a real-life research project. She did — and was hooked. For years, she had vexed her professors with questions, never satisfied with their answers. “Becoming a scientist meant I no longer had to wait for someone to give me the answer,” she said.

That summer, Lee got a phone call from her first-choice veterinary school. After some small talk, the professor asked her to send her most recent grades to complete her application.

Lee’s mind went blank. And then it hit her — ”I completely forgot that I had applied.” Confused, the professor told her she stood a “very good” chance of being accepted. But the budding scientist had found her calling. “No, thank you. I’m going to be a researcher,” she told him, and hung up.

She used rap songs to teach evolutionary biology concepts to inner-city youth.

Lee earned her Ph.D. in biology from the University of Missouri-St. Louis in 2010. Her dissertation challenged current methods for studying animal personalities. Personality traits are often given labels meant to reflect animals’ emotional state (such as bold versus shy), which can be biased and hard to measure. Lee proposed labeling these traits based on observations of how prairie voles behaved in a single situation — in this case, the exploration of a new environment — coming up with traits such as “reactive” versus “proactive.”

“Her research has the potential for greatly affecting how people think about animal personalities,” said Zuleyma Tang-Martinez, Lee’s former Ph.D. advisor and a biology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. The problem is that Lee has yet to publish her dissertation. “She is slow in getting her data published,” Tang-Martinez notes, but adds that Lee is also “incredibly busy on a variety of different activities.”

Especially blogging, which Lee started as a Ph.D. student. For one of her first blogs, “Southern Playalistic Evolution Music,” she used rap songs to teach evolutionary biology concepts to inner-city youth. She explained nuptial gifts — twigs, seed tufts and other tokens that males give females during courtship — with Kanye West’s Gold Digger.

Sure, she’s a self-described “hip-hop maven” who loves bumping Eric B. & Rakim and Drake. “But I’m also hip-hop from a cultural view,” she said. “I can be confrontational and no-nonsense even with the powers that be.” Like last October, when she declined a Biology Online editor’s request to blog for free, and he responded by calling her an “urban whore.” She wrote a post about the incident at The Urban Scientist — which Scientific American deleted, without informing her.

“I was hurt because science prides itself in being welcoming to everyone,” Lee says. ”Science has no color.”

Today, Lee is analyzing data on how African giant pouched rats respond to unfamiliar food. She’ll continue running behavioral experiments in her lab at Cornell and expects to begin genetic analyses next year.

Lee also observes how the rats live in their natural environment: the Tanzanian savannah. She lays out traps and notes the sex, weight, size and other characteristics of the rats she captures. Out in the savannah, Lee is afraid of only one thing — yup, bugs. Swarms of shear-jawed driver ants, to be precise. “If I set my traps and I see driver ants, oh no — I will turn around and go away,” she says. Otherwise, the ants will most definitely pick the trapped animal’s bones clean.


What’s next? Lee envisions herself as a media personality who also does research and outreach. One day, she hopes to host her own backyard biology TV show — or write science-themed sketch comedy for SNL. The stars may very well be aligned, with the recent launch of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos and Discovery Channel delivering its highest viewership in 12 years in 2013.

Landmine-sniffing rats, hip-hop and a dorky sense of humor? Get ready to watch, DVR and repeat. 

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