A Wildlife Ambassador: UA student brings science, social media and activism together

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By Laura Latzko

UA graduate student Earyn McGee is obsessed with lizards.

Her work in the sciences and environmental conservation has led her to the Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list. She was also honored as an American Association for the Advancement of Science mass media science and engineering fellow and an AAAS If/Then ambassador.

A statue was made in her likeness and installed in Central Park Zoo as part of the ambassador program’s #IfThenSheCan-The Exhibit.

“The ambassador program is about making women in sciences more visible, giving us the tools we need to succeed in our endeavors and our scientific efforts, and building a community of women scientists. That way we can lean on each other and collaborate,” McGee says.

McGee has long been an inspiration to others. Working toward her Ph.D. in wildlife conservation and management, McGee shares facts about lizards and other creatures through YouTube, Instagram and Twitter. On Instagram and Twitter, she posts under the name Afro_Herper, a play on “herpetology.”

She asks her followers to look for different species of lizards in photographs she posts as part of her #FindThatLizard game. Sometimes, she engages her followers by sharing their lizard photos. Her videos and posts will often show her in the field, catching and collecting data on lizards. She regularly talks about her favorite species, Yarrow’s Spiny Lizards.

In her videos, she shares information such as where to find lizards and how to hold them, tell if they’re pregnant, measure them and determine their sex.

“When I’m making a video, I’m making it for my younger self, the one who was sitting there watching Steve Irwin and Jeff Corwin and thinking it would be so great if I could do something like that and have that as a job,” McGee says.

She says it’s important to share with others what it has been like to be a Black woman in the science field.

“For me, it’s not just about the lizards,” she says. “It was about telling people about my experiences of a Black woman in a predominately white field. It was trying to find the balance of not completely tanking my career but also being true and authentic while entertaining people. Finding that balance was a little difficult. I would say it probably took me a year to figure it out for myself.”

Through her work, she hopes to encourage girls to pursue careers in science.

“I definitely have parents who email me and tell me their daughters have been inspired. I have my own sisters who tell me the same,” McGee says.

MEETING GOLIATH

McGee went from using social media for personal to educational uses in June 2018 after she posted about a large tadpole named Goliath found at the Southwestern Research Station.

“People just thought it was the weirdest, coolest thing and went wild for it. It ended up going relatively viral,” McGee says.

Although she grew up with social media, it took time for her to figure out how to use it differently.

“I had to figure out my voice and what I wanted to share,” McGee says. “I thought no one would care. Then, I was like these things are important to me, so I’m going to share them, and hopefully it resonates with others.”

She hopes to continue to mentor and inspire others as she has a graduate student.

Working as a mentor is not new for her. For three years, she was a graduate student mentor in UA’s Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program, which aims to create more diversity in the sciences.

“As a mentor, I felt like even though they were helping me with my fieldwork, my role was to serve them and help them get to where they wanted to be,” McGee says.

McGee earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Howard University and UA, respectively. She came to Arizona as part of the Environmental Biology Scholars program, working closely with faculty mentor adviser and herpetologist George Middendorf.

She hopes to expand her research and to include foxes, wolves, octopuses and elephants.

LONGTIME GOALS

The oldest of five kids, McGee was born and grew up for a time in Atlanta before moving to Inglewood, California, for middle and high school. She didn’t have many pets, except for hamsters and a bearded dragon.

She thought she wanted to be a veterinarian, but in college leaned toward wildlife management.

“I always had a love for science and a passion for animals. It really was a whole lot of hard work, perseverance and determination,” McGee says.

Although 2020 was a challenging year for everyone, McGee continued with her work. She stays socially active by helping to organize Black Birders Week, a virtual movement that brings together Black birders. This followed an incident in Central Park where a white woman threatened to call the police on Marvel writer Christian Cooper, who was bird watching.

McGee says she can relate to many of the issues tied to the Black Lives Matter movement.

“This issue very much does touch science, the outdoors world, natural resources and the environment,” she says.

“Our goals are to call out our peers who are not saying anything about the atrocities that are happening in this country and to also build community and uplift each other as Black people in the outdoors.” CT

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