Ecologist Spotlight: Earyn McGee

Welcome to the Ecologist Spotlight column!

We seek out ecologists with diverse backgrounds and perspectives to highlight their work and share their stories and experiences. Thank you to Earyn McGee for participating in our column this week! If you would like to be featured, or would like to nominate someone, please contact us today.

Earyn holding a lizard. Image credit: Dr. George Middendorf.

Please state your current affiliation.

Earyn: The University of Arizona

Tell us about yourself and your current area of research.

Earyn: I am currently a graduate student at the University of Arizona in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment with an emphasis on wildlife conservation and management. I have just completed my Master’s and I will be starting a PhD program in the fall in the same department. My research advisor is Michael Bogan.

My research currently focuses on lizards in the Chiricahua Mountains. I am interested in how individuals within a species and lizard communities as a whole may be affected by stream drying. I hypothesized that perennial streams would provide aquatic subsidies, emerging aquatic insects, to riparian lizards thus reducing competition and opening niches. I predicted that lizard abundances would be greater and that individuals within a species would grow larger and faster along perennial ones when compared to ephemeral ones.

Why is important to study the influence of drought on species that live in a desert? 

Earyn: Many desert species have developed specialties to survive the harshest climates (i.e. extreme temperatures and limited water availability) however they have limits to what they can tolerate. Drought may experience species extinction.

What are some of the unique challenges that you face when conducting fieldwork?

Earyn: In my research I want to look survey lizard communities. Many studies do this with drift fences, pitfall traps and/or funnel traps. In the location that I am working in there is a lot of bedrock which prevents me from digging in the ground to install both drift fences and pitfall traps. This summer I will be testing out above ground drift fences.

What first interested you in ecology?

Earyn: I have always been interested in animals. My clothes were always covered in dirt and mud growing up because I loved being outside, attempting to catch any critters I laid eyes on. I always wanted to know how animals survived in the “wild.” What did they eat? Where did they sleep? How did they survive the elements (i.e. heat, cold, snow, etc.)?

Yarrow’s Spiny lizard (Sceloporus jarrovii). Image credit: Earyn McGee.

What has inspired you in your career?

Earyn: Growing up I wanted to be a veterinarian because I thought that was the best way that I would not only be able to interact with animals on a daily basis but be able to help them as well. During my freshman year of undergrad at Howard University, one of my friends, Robert, suggested I apply for the Environmental Biology Scholars program (EBS). The EBS program paired undergraduate students with one of three professors in the biology department, Dr. Mary McKenna, a botanist, Dr. Hemayet Ullah, a molecular biologist, and Dr. George Middendorf, a herpetologist. I was matched with Dr. Middendorf. The program supported my student research for 2 academic years and two summers. We worked on a population of Yarrow’s Spiny lizard (Sceloporus jarrovii) in the Cave Creek Canyon of the Chiricahua Mountains. During my first summer I feel in love with research. I was able to work with animals and address some of the natural history questions that I had always been interested in. During the academic year in addition to being mentored by Dr. Middendorf, I was also mentored by the previous cohorts of EBS scholars. It was then that I realized how important it was to give back and mentor other students.

Tell us about one of your favorite research moments.

Earyn: My favorite research moment was during my one field season in the summer of 2017. As a Doris Duke Conservation Scholar Mentor, I worked with two undergraduate students, Noel Hamideh and Rezwana Islam. We were staying at the Southwestern Research station. On one particular occasion we decided to visit the frog pond at sunset. We were having a good time observing the frogs when a very persistent robber fly began chasing us around the pond. It first bit Noel. After not receiving an adequate meal from her it then bit me. Soon it’s buzzing had us running in circles until we were finally able to swat it away.

Who is someone that you have never met but whose research you have always admired?

Earyn: I would really like to meet Danni Washington who is the host of the show Nature Knows Best. She is someone I hope to meet her because I think that the work she does is awesome and I would like to do something similar. Danni is the first African American woman to host her own science based television show and that is inspiring to me. I would really like to pick her brain about her trajectory and the challenges she faced on her career path.

Ornate tree lizard (Urosaurus ornatus). Image credit: Earyn McGee.

What is a challenge that you faced as a student, young professional, or early faculty member and how did you work through it?

Earyn: A challenge for me is not having a lot of African American female representation in the field. I am trying to make my own way in a space that is white male dominated. I have to figure out how to manage micro and macro-aggressions mostly on my own. I feel fortunate to have a supportive advisor and many members of the department are also very supportive as well. I was recently made co-chair of the inclusive excellence committee in my department after serving as a member of the committee for a year and a half. I do hope that we are able to bring more diversity to the department and retain that diversity by making the department more inclusive.

When you become discouraged by a challenging research problem or unexpected issue, how do you stay motivated?

Earyn: When I start to feel discouraged I like to take break from whatever it is I am working on. I go do something I enjoy. I get something to eat and I stay hydrated. I remind myself that many people have been on a grad school journey and if they can be successful then there is no reason I can’t be successful myself. When I am ready to return to the project I break it down into bite sized pieces. Then I do one piece at a time. Once completed I reward myself with some break time. Once the allotted break period is over I move on to the next piece. Even if I haven’t finished a piece I give myself a break whenever needed so that I can refocus my mind on the task at hand.

Earyn in the field. Image credit: Mari Cleven.

Do you have a vision for your career or are you taking it one step at a time? 

Earyn: My vision for my career is twofold. It must both allow me to explore my research interests and allow me to spend a significant portion of my time doing mentorship and outreach. When I was a child, I loved watching Steve Irwin on animal planet so I would love to do something similar related to science communication (SciComm). I would love to go exploring the world learning about cool animals and be a role model to kids who look like me. When I’m not traveling, I’d like to run a program similar to the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program or the EBS program.