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‘Lizard lady’ wants to change face of science, share love of learning

TUCSON, Ariz.– If there is such a thing as a celebrity herpetologist, University of Arizona doctoral student Earyn McGee is well on her way.

At age 26, the self-described “lizard lady” already has her own Wikipedia page, a temporary statue in her honor at the Central Park Zoo in New York City, and her own line of merchandise for the tens of thousands of people who follow her on social media.

Earlier this month, McGee’s campaign to make science more fun and her field more inclusive to people of color helped land her on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list of North American scientists to watch in 2021.

And the woman known online as Afro_Herper has no intention of stopping there, the Arizona Daily Star reported.

McGee’s ultimate goal is to host her own nature show — something inspiring and adventurous, like a mash-up of “The Crocodile Hunter” and “Dirty Jobs,” only about researchers who look like her.

“I want to change the face of science — and I want to go and be a natural-history TV host — because I want to show other Black girls and other kids of color that these are jobs that they can have if they want them,” McGee said.

That notion never even occurred to her when she was a little girl, watching with jealousy as other people got to play with critters on Animal Planet and the Discovery Channel.

“I was never able to put together two and two: That’s their job. They went and got training, they applied for a job and they got it,” she said. “I didn’t think that that was something I could do.”

If McGee does wind up on TV some day, UA assistant professor Michael Bogan won’t be surprised a bit.

“When Earyn gets an idea in her head, she is relentless,” said Bogan, McGee’s graduate adviser. “I have no doubt that if that’s still her career goal in a few years, she will be on her way or in that position.”

McGee was born in Atlanta and lived there until she was about 10, when her family moved several times before finally settling in the Los Angeles suburb of Inglewood.

She’s had an interest in nature for as long as she can remember. Once, when she was about 5, she and her grandmother came across a dead bird while out on a walk, and little Earyn kept begging to go back to try to save the fallen creature.

“I was always super into animals,” McGee said.

As the oldest of five siblings, she said her parents always encouraged her dream of working with wildlife.

Their only requirement: She had to be able to find a job and support herself, so when she moved out of the house, she didn’t come back, McGee said with a laugh.

She originally planned to go to veterinary school, but all the people she knew who went that route were miserable, so she decided to study environmental biology instead.

The lizard thing happened by accident.

After she enrolled at Howard University in Washington, D.C., she went looking for a research lab with live animals in it, but the pickings were slim. One of them specialized in fish, another in snails. “I thought, ‘Oh, that’s not cool,'” she said.

Then she discovered professor George Middendorf’s lizard lab.

Before long, McGee was spending her summers in Southern Arizona catching and cataloging the Sky Island reptiles of the Chiricahua Mountains, where Middendorf had been conducting research for decades. The lizard lady was hooked.

“I’d get up, I’d go have breakfast, I’d go catch lizards and then I was done for the day,” she said of her two summers in the field. “I could get paid for this?”

About the time McGee was finishing up her bachelor’s degree at Howard, Bogan was looking for the first crop of graduate students to work in his new lab at Arizona.

He called up Middendorf, a trusted friend and colleague he came to know from his work in the Chiricahuas.

“He said, ‘Do I have a student for you,'” Bogan recalled. “I knew Earyn was going to be good in the field. I just didn’t know that she was going to be so good at everything else.”

At the time, Bogan was grudgingly learning to use social media to expand the reach of the work he was doing. He encouraged McGee to give it a try, too.

“As a teacher, you want to see your students do better than you. Earyn has certainly succeeded there,” he said with a laugh.

Today McGee has nearly 40,000 followers on Twitter and more than 19,000 followers on Instagram.

And as her following has grown, so has her voice.

Earlier this year, she helped organize and amplify Black Birders Week, an online celebration of Black nature lovers.

The viral event in late May and early June came in response to police brutality nationwide and to the specific case of a white woman in Central Park who called 911 to falsely accuse a Black bird watcher of threatening her and her dog.

Other, similar events followed to highlight Black scientists in other fields, including astronomy, botany, chemistry and neurology.

In the midst of all that, American Association for the Advancement of Science named McGee as an IF/THEN Ambassador, an honor given to just 125 innovators nationwide to highlight women in science, technology, engineering and math.

As part of the recognition, she received a fellowship that allowed her to hone her science communication skills as a reporter for the summer at the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Nevada’s largest newspaper.

She and her fellow ambassadors were also immortalized in a 3D-printed art exhibit, which is why there is a statue of McGee on display at the Central Park Zoo through the end of the year.

So far, though, McGee’s biggest claim to fame is #FindThatLizard, a weekly social-media game she started in 2018.

Each Wednesday at 5 p.m., she posts a picture and gives participants four hours to find the lizard hiding somewhere in the image. It’s like a coldblooded version of Where’s Waldo? but educational and a whole lot harder.

The contest draws hundreds of likes and responses every week.

Several of her friends have tried to talk her into posting a picture without a lizard in it, just to mess with people. “But I can’t damage my credibility like that,” she said. “There’s always a lizard.”

She now sells #FindThatLizard stickers, T-shirts and candles featuring a cartoon version of herself with a lizard in her hair.

“It kind of took on a life of its own,” she said.

But McGee isn’t just in it for the clicks. She is still a working scientist, and she’s more than happy to get out there and get her hands dirty.

Last year, she co-wrote a paper with Bogan and fellow lizard lassoer Sarah Manka-Worthington outlining an effective technique for collecting fecal samples from small reptiles. (Without getting too graphic, it involves a piece of pool noodle and some gentle pressure.)

McGee said whatever she ends up doing in the future, she always wants to make time for research.

Along the way, she also hopes to literally rewrite the language of her chosen field to make it more inclusive.

Instead of the “noose” long favored by herpetologists, McGee talks about using a “lasso” to catch lizards.

Both words describe the same action — and the same string-like piece of equipment used for the task — but only one carries disturbing historical connotations, especially for a Black woman in a field dominated by white people.

Not only that, but “the term is just inaccurate,” McGee said. “We’re not trying to kill or hurt the lizard.”

She remembers the first time as an undergraduate when she heard someone casually use the word “noose” in a scientific setting. It was weird and off-putting, she said, even though she couldn’t articulate why at the time.

The term still made her feel “icky” when she started graduate school in 2016, so she decided to start talking about it, and not just online.

“That’s an example of how fearless Earyn is,” Bogan said. It’s one thing to bring up an issue like that on social media, he said. “It’s another to say it in person at a scientific conference.”

Bogan thinks she’s making a difference, too, though the only way to know for sure is to track the use of both words in the scientific literature over time. Maybe McGee should do a paper on it, he said.

Not right now, though. Right now McGee is busy writing her dissertation, which covers a wide range of topics from the impacts of stream drying on lizards that feed on aquatic insects, to the barriers preventing Black women from entering careers in ecology and natural history.

She is scheduled to defend her research in April and graduate in summer with a Ph.D. in natural resources.

After that, Bogan said, McGee could get a job with a university, a conservation group or a wildlife agency — something to pay the bills while she continues her research on the diets of lizards and the impacts of climate change on desert ecosystems.

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