Did you know rats in Tanzania are saving lives by detecting landmines and tuberculosis? Our guest Dr. Danielle N. Lee shares with us her work with giant pouched rats and her work on decolonizing STEM. This is our first interview at the 2018 GeekGirlCon.
Check out the rest of Dr. Lee’s TED talk featured in this episode by clicking on the link.
Photo: Ryan Lash/TED
Click Here for Transcript
(Dr. Regina) Welcome to Spark Science where we share stories of human curiosity. I’m your host Regina Barber DeGraaff, an astrophysicist and pop culture enthusiast. This is our season 5 Geek Girl Con episode. For our new listeners, what is Geek Girl Con? Geek Girl Con is a comic book convention with a mission to celebrate geek culture and all aspects of female identity. It’s held annually at the Seattle Convention Center and Spark Science has been covering it for the last 4 years. At this convention you’ll find discussion panels on comics, movies, books, and even social identities.
There are activities that help girls learn all sorts of games including video, board, role playing, etc. One of the coolest things at this convention is a whole floor dedicated to science. This whole floor dedicated to science is called the DIY Science Zone. It was created by famed science communicator Dr. Raychelle Burks. Check out her interview in season four.
There are about a dozen hands on booths run by women scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. We had the honor of interviewing a few of these amazing scholars, including Dr. Danielle Lee who studies giant pouched rats in Tanzania. Yes, I know it sounds super cool and slightly scary.
Oh and by the way, in this episode we also mention SACNAS, which is the largest national organization dedicated to voting racial and ethnic inclusion in STEM. STEM being science, technology, engineering, and math. Individuals deeply involved in this organization are called SACNISTAs . We visit the SACNISTAs convention every year so stay tuned for those episodes later this season. Now on to our first interview at Geek Girl Con with Dr. Danielle Lee.
I’m at Geek Girl Con with a fellow SACNISTA and famed science communicator. I will let you say your full name or whatever name you want to say because I butcher names.
(Dr. Lee) I am Danielle N. Lee but online most people know me as DN Lee 5.
(Dr. Regina) I follow you on twitter and you have a lot of followers. You say amazing things. You’re here at Geek Girl Con, is it the first time you’ve been here?
(Dr. Lee) No, the do it yourself zone started in 2012 and I was here that first year. This is my fourth time.
(Dr. Regina) Tell me a little bit about your science and the booth we have here. Then we’ll get right into other intense things.
(Dr. Lee) I’m a mammalogist, a zoologist who studies mammals. I study the behavior of rodents, nuisance rodents across gradients. Essentially I do the scientific study of city mouse and country mouse, on field mice in the states and I also study giant pouch rats in Tanzania. [Laughing.]
(Dr. Regina) This is all audio so you can’t see my eyes that got super big when she said, pouch rats and Tanzania. Tell me about these pouched rats.
(Dr. Lee) So they’re really big. There about 2.5 to 3 feet long from nose to tip of tail. They weigh up to, I’m so used to thinking in KGs, they can weigh up to about a kilogram to about 2 kilograms. That’s about 2-5 lbs. It’s a big rat from nose to tip of tail. They’re really popular because we discovered they can be successfully trained to detect tuberculosis and land mines.
(Dr. Regina) Before we go any further, keep that picture in mind, a giant 2-5 lbs. rat that is being used to detect land mines. To know more about why this is even necessary, here is a clip from Dr. Danielle Lee’s 2016 Ted Talk.
(Dr. Lee) An estimated 15-20 thousand people are killed or maimed by land mines each year. Land mines prevent construction of homes, roads, schools, and hospitals. Formerly war torn parts of Africa and Asia feel the impact especially hard because land mines denote access to farmland for some of the most needy populations. A perfect yet unlikely hero in this story is the African Giant Pouched Rat. Native to sub-Saharan Africa, the Pouched Rat adopted to the ecological conditions to the areas is likely to be used. Their relatively easier to care for. They’ll eat almost anything and they live up to 8 years. In 2000 an NGE named Apopo trained Pouched Rat in Tanzania to detect land mines. In neighboring Mozambique, Apopo has discovered and destroyed 2400 land mines returning over 6 million square meters of land to the country.
(Dr. Regina) So now we know that land mines on agricultural land is a huge problem, let’s find out more about the Giant Pouched Rats role as a mine detector.
Tell me more about why they can possibly detect tuberculosis and land mines.
(Dr. Lee) First of all, rats and rodents, rats in general have a great sense of smell. If you can do that fancy anatomy thing where you can redraw their body based on their neurons, they would be a big giant nose. They have a lot of great olfactory neurons. Their great at smelling. Many animals are capable of training.
Basic operant conditioning, which is positive reinforcement, this is what they use to train juvenile captive bread Pouched Rats. They train them on the odor cue. For those detecting land mines, they train them to detect TNT. Those for tuberculosis detection, they train them on positive sputum samples. That’s how you get it diagnosed.
People kind of do the [throat clearing sound] into a little test tube and then they send it to the doctor. Then the lab literally, the traditional way, they smear it on a slide and look at it under a microscope. They go scan by scan by scan looking for the bacteria.
That takes a long time and in nations like Tanzania and their neighboring nations like Mozambique, to run microscopes you have to have light and skilled technicians. You’re under the gun because tuberculosis can spread faster than the time you take to look under the microscope. You line up samples in a row and they run them in a run way. Then they attend to the one that smells positive. It saves countless hours of time.
People looking for samples can at least get through the negatives. That way the lab technicians can just take the time to look at the ones clear it the first pre-screening.
(Dr. Regina) That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever heard.
(Dr. Lee) And it doesn’t require electricity. You’re just running them through a little runway. Blackouts and brownouts happen all the time. You lose a lot of precious lab time. That’s one of the things I’ve learned working in a developing nation. Basic infrastructure is what makes the West successful.
(Dr. Regina) I’ve been to Tanzania. In 2004.
(Dr. Lee) Awesome! [Speaking in foreign language]
(Dr. Regina) All I know is Gina means name. My name is Gina. It was like Who’s on First for 10 minutes. My friend who was speaking Swahili because she was in the Peace Corps, was getting the tickets and their like, “We need the names.” She’s like, “Kate, Jake, Gena.” They’re like “Kate, Jake, yes what’s the name?” She’s like, “It’s Gena.” It went on forever and she said it’s “Just Gina!” And they were like, “Your name is Justgina?” [Laughing.] So they wrote down Justingina.
(Dr. Lee) My Tanzania name is Daniella. I love working there. I’m going back next year as part of my regular research. My goal is to go at least every other year and eventually start taking students for like, the study abroad program.
(Dr. Regina) How many students do you take? What’s that process like?
(Dr. Lee) I’m learning it myself as a new facility member. Most of those field studies, study abroads, they like to take about 12 students.
(Dr. Regina) I’ve heard stories about bringing students and just kind of, them not knowing the subject isn’t the biggest problem, it’s not knowing the culture and not really . . . be prepared for that.
(Dr. Lee) That’s something I’ve thought about too. When I was in Tanzania the last time, one of my local hosts actually noticed an author of a book who was a Tanzanian who lived in America for a while and specifically was talking about what it means to be black. His book was directive for Americans with a special note for Black Americans understanding that difference. There would be text that they have to read to be culturally prepared.
At our university you pretty much have to list a study abroad course a whole year or more out to attract students and to fund raise. They’re going to have to do some very rudimentary Swahili. That’s the great thing about Tanzania. They are amazingly polite and patient.
Even in my courses, when I teach mammalogy, in my syllabus I’m going to decolonize the scholars. I’m going to teach you this stuff and we’re going to deconstruct this stuff. Even though I’m still working through it, you know, when I talk about things like the old white guy rules like the Burgmans and the Goldures. Why do we name these things after these guys? Why are they the fathers of natural history?
These natural history museums with specimens all over the world, permits did not exist then, so how did they get it and how did they take it? I make them think through it. I’m like, “Yeah, they just took it.” Even our naming, they just gave it a name. These things had names before they got there. One of the things I’ve decided to do the next time I teach mammalogy is, they have to learn common names. You should learn the indigenous names of those animals.
When I was in Tanzania the last time I was getting common names of a lot of animals that I talk about in my class any way. The local primates in particular. That’s what they call this animal, that’s its name. You have to recognize that people lived here. People had a history with these plants and animals. We’re learning evolution, we should be thinking in narratives of how these things live.
The landscape we talk about when we say we want to return something to a natural state, folks say, “Before people?” I say, no, there were people here and they were living with animals in ways that we would not describe in our language today as conflict. There has been animal conflict but the way we describe animal conflict today is a result of modernizing. There are plenty of indigenous cultures that live in consort with wild animals.
In Tanzania this time, I was looking for new sites down by the national park. I met with this really old gentleman, Benedict. He lives in a make shift house. He’s like, “Lions come by here, Rhinos…” I’m like, “What?” He said, “The foot path, that’s theirs.” I said, “Are you afraid?” He said, “No, we’re old fellows.” I believe him. He’s like, “Elephants and lions come by here daily, I keep a little fire burning outside. Just a little fire, no bigger than could lite up a little pot.” That’s his method. He was like, “We’re all fellows. He was 90 something years old.
(Dr. Regina) We’ll be right back with more Spark Science and Dr. Danielle Lee.
(Dr. Regina) Welcome back to Spark Science. In this episode, we’re at Geek Girl Con. A conference focused on all things geek. Science history is something that many classes gloss over. It’s hard to face the sad, the hurtful, and even the grotesque actions that result in data and methods commonly used in science today. But, decolonizing curriculum means teaching science from other perspectives, not just those who colonize. Here is some of what mammalogist Dr. Danielle Lee had to say about her efforts to share other science perspectives.
Give an example of decolonizing that you have done or that you have heard maybe in another field as well.
(Dr. Lee) One example, before I had the vocabulary and language for but it truly was decolonizing, was the work by Jarita Holbrook so, Dr. Holbrook. I think she’s in your field, astrophysics. She, I don’t know exactly what she studies but more lately she is focusing on film making with documentaries and women of color, black women specifically in physics and astronomy.
(Dr. Regina) Awesome.
(Dr. Lee) She started spending time with different groups or tribes in southern Africa so South Africa and some of those neighboring small countries and learning astronomy from them. These are countries that have thousand plus year astronomy history where they name constellations and all this other stuff.
Looking at astronomy from a different perspective where they actually had constellations that they talked about physics, African physics African astronomy. That was my first awakening to it. Then how I try to do that in my classes is that I remind them that a lot of natural history has been always for empire making.
If you look at most of the specimens in museums of natural history, it was Miriam and Simpson, those were all railroad surveys. They did a lot of that stuff because they were railroad surveys. Charles Darwin, he was riding in a navy vessel. That was empire building because they were scouting out other places to live.
The natural history that he learned, he didn’t go there as a clean slate, he got natural history lessons of South American flora and fauna from, what’s his name, Edmonson. He was a freed slave in British Guayama who had taught him taxidermy. That’s how he learned bird taxidermy. Yeah from a British solve in Guayama. He was there documenting because the British Empire was the empire building.
First, it was a missionary, and then the military and the mercantile, then natural history. They rode the same routs. Science colonialism is real. The science we do is from a very colonialist perspective, imperialist perspective. Recognizing that, what we call the science, the objective science, its objective at all. It definitely came from a particular perspective and viewpoint. It has a lot of presumptions of who gets to ask the questions, what makes a question good enough, what discounts, etc.
Anthropology has taught me a lot. Just listening to the story particularly of indigenous scholars from the Americas, all that stuff was called physical anthropology. They literally were killing people and putting parts of their bodies in museums.
(Dr. Regina) These were actually people though?
(Dr. Lee) We’re talking about people. These are things you don’t know because we clean that part of it up. We don’t talk about that part of it. Now we’re 100-200 years away from that stuff, like, look at this knowledge we just magically have. No, we don’t magically have this. We’ve done a lot of collateral damage in all the sciences. A lot of it. At the very least, by bringing all of it, at the very least we should be more ethical. In all of it. I mean that even with working with animals and working in the environment.
There’s a better way to do science. There is more than one way to human. We have plenty of good examples in history and contemporary times of different groups of people who have found ways to live together and use resources without gutting it all. Why can we human like that? A lot of that I got in Tanzania. Humanity wise, we can learn lessons from how people interact with one another in Tanzania and take can of each other. Or just don’t do bad things to each other for the sake of earning money.
(Dr. Regina) There’s so much talk about, maybe somebody comes up to you and says, “Tell me about what it’s like to be a women in STEM.” It’s very surface level questions right? How do you help your students navigate that world? How do you get all of this stuff when the questions in the majority of society and your academia, pop culture, it’s very surface level questions.
(Dr. Lee) Usually I broach it with, “do you really want to know? Do you want a superficial answer? Because if you want a superficial answer I’m happy to be like, ‘Talk to that person who will give you that, but you already know the answer. Why are you asking me the same thing you already know?'” How I faced it is I thought about how I wanted to set my lab up?
I have four principles that I train students and I’ve taken to the classroom. In other words I do ecology and behavior science but I also focus on engagement and justice. All four of those things are simultaneously important. There is no hierarchy. There is no good data if you’re not ethical. There is no good science if everyone who participates in science doesn’t have the opportunity to benefit from it or to reap the benefits of it.
(Dr. Regina) Or they don’t feel like they can be themselves.
(Dr. Lee) I’m challenging exploration, you know, I’m calling it what it is instead of saying, “That’s a normal relationship.” No. I get that that’s common between trainees and PI’s in many context but that’s not normal. Bad behavior leads to bad data. I just believe that. It’s corrupting. If you do one thing corrupting in your practice, then all the rest of your practice in your science is suspect.
If you are willing to use people or to lie about paying people, well, I don’t believe that you’ll be honest in your data reporting or your statistical analysis. One type of honesty predicts another in my opinion. I look at that. If you have never thought about that, I think you should face that, but I’m willing to give you space to say, “No, no, no, you don’t know anymore.” There’s no reason for treating people and the environment crappy anymore.
(Dr. Regina) Before, you had to pretend that you were a white male and now the only other option is now you have to pretend you are a white female.
(Dr. Lee) Well, this is the thing. I’ve been very good at code switching. I was trained to do that because it was essential. But, no one has ever let me forget that I’m not what I’m supposed to be. Whatever that is. I’m not saying every single person has done that to me but I have never been in a space in science ever where I was not reminded that I’m an exception. Not because I’m exceptional but because of the package of who I am. I’m too loud, I take up too much space, or I’m too this. Literally the only thing that would make you happy is if I just disappeared.
The only way I’m acceptable is if you get to take credit for what I do and then I go back to being quiet and hiding away. That’s not OK. That’s not even a black woman or a woman of color thing. They do that to white woman. They do that to white men who come from the wrong side of the tracks or the wrong families. That’s the problem of hierarchical thinking that is informed by old school colonialist thinking. That’s the inheritance of it. You can’t be right. Too many questions have been ignored or stolen from the people who did the work. The science we have is probably a fraction of what we could have had if we had been better people.
(Dr. Regina) Everything you just said, I think was so refreshing. I think about these things a lot too. I don’t want to end on a downer. I want to go up.
(Dr. Lee) OK, let’s go up.
(Dr. Regina) What I’m going to say to go up, is that, there’s some resistance to that. There are some people out there that are hungry, hungry for this other non-stereotypical version of a scientist right? Do you see that? Do you want to name anything else you are seeing that wants to counter act that realism in the history of science?
(Dr. Lee) I see folks are hungry for it. Especially at events like this at Geek Girl Con. People bring in their young children, their daughters especially for this event. The avatar for the zone is Dr. Mae, based on Dr. Mae Jemison. She is this adorable African American women with big afro puffs. Seeing these little girls run up to the avatar smiling and wanting to take pictures with it, I, yes I see a lot of that push back. I see a lot of that in parents and teachers. I see audiences. That’s what I really see, is the non-science audiences that are hungry for authenticity.
For someone to connect to them. To say, “Yeah, of course you can do this too, and you don’t have to turn yourself inside out and change to finely do this science, you can do that right now.” Here are all of these examples of people from history and contemporary times who are doing it. I choose to start imagining a different world and start working toward one that is better. But that means imagining one first.
(Dr. Regina) That’s a beautiful line. Thank you so much for talking to me. You’ve been awesome.
(Dr. Lee) Awe thanks.
(Dr. Regina) We’d like to thank Dr. Lee for taking the time from her busy DIY booth to talk to us. If you would like to know more about her research, watch the rest of her Ted Talk titled, Finding Land Mines Using Pouched Rats from December 2016 or follow her on twitter at dnlee5.
If you’d like to learn more about Geek Girl Con, check out their website geekgirlcon.com.
Spark Science is sponsored by WWU and created in partnership with KMRE. Spark Science is recorded on location in Bellingham Washington at Western Washington University. The producers are Suzanne Blaze, Regina Barber DeGraaff, and Robert Clark. Student editors are Julia Thorpe, Andra Nordin, and Sarah Coky. Additional editing is done by WWU video services. If there’s a science idea that you’re curious about, post a message on our Facebook page or twitter @sparksciencenow. Thanks for joining us. If you want to listen to past episodes, visit sparksciencenow.com.
[End of podcast.]