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Recode Decode at TED: Biologist Danielle N. Lee wants more “nerdy black and brown kids” in STEM

Also: What Lauren Hill can teach us about sexual conflict.

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Biologist Danielle N. Lee.
Biologist Danielle N. Lee at The Root 100 gala on November 9, 2017.
Bennett Raglin/Getty Images

On the latest episode of Recode Decode with Kara Swisher, Kara passed the mic to her executive producer Erica Anderson, who recently attended the 2019 TED Conference in Vancouver, Canada. On the new podcast, you’ll hear four interviews with TED Fellows, up-and-coming innovators in science and technology who give talks about their work on the conference’s first day.

Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of the first of those four interviews: In it, Erica talks to Danielle N. Lee, a behavioral biologist who has also been a vocal advocate for diversity in STEM.

“I want to see other copies of me. Young women, young people, who come from the hood, who come from urban areas, who come from the South, who come from working-class families, and come from teen moms ... Those people have expertise and genius,” Lee said. “We don’t often think about all these different layers and flavors of genius. And you have so many nerdy black and brown kids, and they need to know it’s all right to be hood and nerdy at the same time.”

You can hear all four interviews right now on Recode Decode, which you’ll find on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts. Or, just listen using the embedded audio player below.


Erica Anderson: Danielle, welcome to Recode Decode!

Danielle Lee: Thank you.

So let’s start out. You gave a talk about the birds and the bees. It was a biology talk about mating and monogamy. But what was really interesting is, you really talked about how you can use hip-hop to frame and communicate science to a broader audience. So first, tell me a little about your talk, but what’s your big idea that you want to talk about today?

I like that you called it “the birds and the bees.” I sometimes call it “the birds, the bees, and the beats.” So my big idea is using culturally relevant context to communicate science to audiences who have been traditionally overlooked by popular science outreach and media. I grew up listening to hip-hop, and I was that kid who liked watching nature shows, but I always felt like I could narrate it better by using a vernacular and lexicon that represented how I spoke and how we talked in my neighborhood. Just like, “You see that bird, he rolling up on her, because he’s like, hey mama, what’s up?”

Tell me a little bit about how you got into ... you’re a scientist. Why did you decide to become a scientist?

I’ve always loved animals. I was that kid who spent time outside a lot, because I got to go to work with my mom, she worked outdoors. And so I lived in a park, I was hunting four-leaf clovers, and I’d learn this ecology, I didn’t know the word at the time, about when things were happening in my neighborhood. So my little patches of nature were my parks and my schoolyard and backyard, and I was always just collecting stuff and bringing stuff home and asking a lot of questions about why animals did this and why they did that. And throughout school and college I could get no satisfactory answers. None.

Until one day, one of the papers I wrote in my Animal Communications class, the professor said, “This is a great idea, you should do a project on it.” And he sketched out the experimental design, because I wasn’t really there yet, and it started as just a simple summer project. He told me, he said, “You can do this, this is research, you can do in two months.” I worked on that for two-and-a-half years. But it was the hook. That got me hooked into doing science formally. Until then, I was set on going to veterinary school, because I thought the only career available to you if you liked animals was veterinary medicine, or maybe a zoo keeper. But what I loved about it, doing science, was I no longer asked anyone any questions any more. I was equipped to answer my own questions.

That’s amazing. So your big idea that you’re bringing to TED and that you want to talk about today is about ... you talked to me a little bit about, like centering marginalized voices in the conversation and this idea of inclusive science. Talk about what that means.

That means making room at the table. Even if you think the table is full, you make space available to scooch over. And you bring people to the table and recognize who’s not there, who’s voices aren’t there, who’s ability to communicate and tap into audiences that are being left behind. So I come from what I call under-served audiences, like urban audiences and African American and brown, these kind of mixed-culture audiences are often overlooked and completely under-served.

If you look at the average science information going out, like science magazines ... I’ve written for Scientific American. The average reader of those types of magazines is a 49-year-old college-educated white man who works in middle management. That’s the average reader of those types of magazines. Who’s being left out? We’re leaving a lot of folks out. And I can’t talk to everybody, but I know my audience, because I come from that audience. So I was like, I speak both science and I speak what’s happening ... some variations of hood, Southern vernacular in particular, and I want to at least communicate with younger versions of myself.

Yeah. So what was the inspiration for this idea? What’s the inspiration for inclusive science and dedicating yourself to talking about this on such a big stages?

I am trying to replace myself.

Tell me, what does that mean?

That means, I want to see other copies of me. Young women, young people, who come from the hood, who come from urban areas, who come from the South, who come from working-class families, and come from teen moms, and ... Those people have expertise and genius.

We don’t often think about all these different layers and flavors of genius. And you have so many nerdy black and brown kids, and they need to know it’s all right to be hood and nerdy at the same time. You can talk about Three 6 Mafia and what’s happening in nature and quantum physics. They need to know that that’s normal. So what I’m trying to do is, until we get the numbers, I’m trying to create a perception of normality, that we are there and present.

I love that. In Silicon Valley you often hear, the problem with inclusion is there’s a pipeline problem. And you would probably refute that.

Somewhat. There is genius out there. Now the pipeline problem is real as far as the formal education part. We are losing people. Because some of these spaces are not welcoming enough, or the people who are in charge of educating them and holding these precious young people and preparing them sometimes lack patience to let people go through stuff or find their way. Or they just don’t recognize genius if it doesn’t come in a package that they’re prepared for.

Interesting.

Yeah.

Right. That makes sense. So did you have role models, did you have people, teachers, who drew ... saw your genius, when you were coming up?

A little bit. Now I was ... I think they did, yes, no doubt. But I was ... I’m also very tenacious. I refuse “no” as an answer. So much of it ... I’ve had professors who were like, “You just weren’t going away.” I’m like, “Exactly.”

Yeah. That is ... that’s good, that works.

I refuse to wait for ... I don’t ask for permission.

Ask for forgiveness.

If that.

Okay. Okay, all right. I can take a tip from you. So, next question. How do you execute this ambition of centering marginalized voices and making science more inclusive? How do you execute that?

How I got started was actually through social media. I used blogging, so the golden age of blogging around ‘06, ‘07, when it was really hitting. I just started blogging about these experiences, and so these were ideas that had been swirling around in my head for the longest time, and I started a blog called Southern Playalistic Evolution Music.

Say it again.

Southern Playalistic Evolution Music. It was a play on an OutKast song. And it was ... what did I say? Explaining evolutionary science with fat beats.

Amazing.

And that’s how I got started, by using social media.

Probably weren’t a lot of blogs like that.

There were not.

This was the golden age of blogging, when you had the Google blog search and you could find other great blogs. That’s when I started blogging.

Yeah. The highlight of networks.

Yeah.

So I was on a ... at the time it was a brand-new science network, because there was a lot of reconfiguring. That was the other play, it was on the Southern Fried Science blog network, science blog network.

Very clever.

So it was a play on the Southern Fried Science, and also the fact that I’m from the South.

Yeah. Cool. So you started ... that was, what, 10 years ago, 12 years ago?

Yeah.

So you started using social media, you started telling stories, you started creating your own content. Where are you at today, like how do you execute this work today? I know you’ve spent a lot of time in Tanzania conducting research, the other part of your life spent in St. Louis teaching. So what is the execution like for this idea?

So the execution for this idea is primarily me talking to my students in class. Now, some of them, my music is dated, so I get blank looks, but I’m like, “You all know these songs, I hear you all bopping to them.” But it means interacting with my students. I’ve done some ... I still get invited to do speaking engagements. So that’s really where it happens, in the speaking engagements and venued events to talk about these things.

Yeah, yeah. I spent eight years in tech, I worked at Twitter and Google, and there’s a huge focus on scale. What can you scale? But the kind of work I did, which was talking about the company’s role in journalism, kind of doesn’t scale. You just have to go out and have conversations.

Yeah. And that’s why I think being in academia puts me in a safe space to do that, so that I can pop in and out and do this. As I see it, that’s the place right there. Everything’s not always easily scalable.

Something you said to me is, “Observation is the foundation of scientific process.” Tell me about that, because I asked you yesterday when we talked, “Why is this important?” Like, why? And you talked about that, the scientific process. So explain that.

All right. So you know in school you learn a scientific method, like there’s seven, eight steps, and they’re like, there’s question, and hypothesis ...

I was not paying attention but this is my own fault. Yes.

But what they don’t tell you is, you can’t ask questions about the world if you haven’t been paying attention. So the real first step of science, of a scientific process, is observation. And we got ... as we say in the hood, the streets is watching. We got a lot of folks with eyes out there, who have a really good understanding of the ecologies, the ecosystems, the science, both wildlife and natural science, which I study, or even the night skies and the stars and how things are moving. There’s a lot of observers out there that we don’t recognize as authentic observers. And they have good questions in them. And just giving them the space and recognizing, when you have a question in you, how can we help you cultivate the science in you to ask that question, to test it, to validate it, and to affirm the science genius I know that already exists.

And so we are missing out on a lot of good questions. So what people don’t recognize is that all the innovation we have in the world, how science works, people are pursuing questions that are personally relevant. There is no recipe. You’re not told, “You’re studying this, you’re studying that.” And so from my perspective, it’s a miracle we have amassed as much knowledge as we have, because everyone’s simply pursuing personally interesting questions.

Wow.

Which questions aren’t being asked because whole demographics aren’t participating in science?

Wow, that’s fascinating. It’s such a good point. What questions aren’t being asked?

So that’s why I want to recenter ... who’s at the center. So when we look at, what questions are marginalized communities asking themselves every day? That I just want to recenter. Let’s pick this microscope up, literally, or telescope, and let’s move it 30 degrees.

Yeah. What’s so interesting about that is, that’s where innovation comes from, new ideas and the circulation of new ideas.

Absolutely.

So, last question before we send you back to the TED conference. What do you hope to accomplish with this work? What’s the moonshot?

If we’re dreaming big ...

We are, yeah.

Sky’s the limit. I started blogging because I wanted a science show. At the time, there was zero women and zero people of color and definitely no one who was intersectional, who occupied these multiple identities of a woman and a person of color. So I wanted a science show, so I was documenting and putting out content of what I thought would be great little episodes. So the moonshot for me would be to do a science show. It’d be awesome to do a whole ... a hood version, if you will, of a nature show, of me explaining, “You see what’s happening now? Let me explain this.”

I would watch that. All right, you’re the new ... let’s get PBS on this, or Netflix.

Yes, David Attenborough, move over. What y’all need is a Southern accent.

Yes! I love it. I love it, I love it. Well, I’ve learned a lot from speaking with you. So thank you for your time and I guess the one last, last question is, what’s the hip-hop song we should all be listening to to learn more about science?

Wow. See, you got me with that one. It depends on what we’re talking about. So, a lot of what I’ll talk about in the evolutionary context is sexual selection. And if you want a really good first introduction to this foundation concept in sexual selection, we call it sexual conflict. And that’s because males and females of any species, they’re not always on the same page. And so it’s the conflict of getting what you want, which may not always line up with what the other sex wants. And so the perfect song that explains it perfectly, is Lauren Hill’s “That Thing.”

Okay. All right.

So if you want to understand sexual conflict, listen to “That Thing” by Lauren Hill.

All right. We’ll roll the tape. All right. Thank you, Dr. Danielle N. Lee, former TED fellow, who spoke onstage at TED 2019. Thank you so much for joining us.

Thank you. This was fun.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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