Look Out, Bill Nye! Earyn McGee Rises to Social Media Stardom
McGee began her education as a field research-focused undergraduate but then became a science communication sensation on social media. Now a UArizona graduate student named to Forbes 30 Under 30, she advocates for conservation and inclusivity in the sciences.
If you don't already recognize Earyn McGee's name, you might soon.
Known as @Afro_Herper to her over 36,000 Twitter followers, nearly 19,000 Instagram followers and a growing number of YouTube subscribers, the University of Arizona graduate student began her higher education journey with her sights set on field research. She has since expanded her focus to include advocacy for environmental conservation and inclusivity in the sciences, through mentoring and science communication campaigns on social media.
After earning her undergraduate degree in biology from Howard University in 2016, McGee came to the University of Arizona to study amphibians and lizards. She wanted to be a wildlife biologist and run her own research lab. But she was also interested in getting out the message on wildlife conservation and perhaps someday hosting her own natural history show, like "Bill Nye the Science Guy."
"After a couple of conversations with Earyn, I recognized that both of those goals were within her reach," said Michael Bogan, an assistant professor in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment and McGee's graduate adviser.
While Bogan says he was a reluctant adopter of social media, he soon realized it was a powerful tool for communicating with the public and journalists, and he encouraged McGee to use it, too.
"I was so pleased when Earyn not only took it up, but then rapidly eclipsed my own following and reach and became a social media star," Bogan said.
McGee's thread on Twitter about finding Goliath the giant tadpole in June 2018 marked her first foray into science communication and the first jump in her number of followers. The photo and explanation for the tadpole's abnormal size garnered nearly 13,000 likes and was shared by more than 6,000 people.
Later that summer, McGee created the #FindThatLizard Twitter game in which she challenges her followers to spot camouflaged reptiles in photos she has snapped in the field.
"People came for the tadpole but stayed for the lizard, and my following kept growing from there," she said.
McGee says she is passionate about getting people excited about nature because she feels many people have lost their connection with it.
"If more people connected with and respected nature, we would see more conservation behavior. We wouldn't see littering on beaches or on Sabino Canyon trails," McGee said. "I want people to gain that respect and build that connection. That will hopefully lead to some sort of conservation behaviors."
Now that she has a substantial audience, she's getting practice in front of a camera via her YouTube channel, where she shares her knowledge of lizards and other desert critters. In one of her first videos, she walks viewers through a typical day of data collection while sprinkling in interesting facts. The video shows her safely taking a lizard's measurements, temporarily marking it with non-toxic ink, determining its sex (male lizards have two penises), and collecting a fecal sample by gently placing pressure on its abdomen.
McGee also uses her platform to try to help make the science community more inclusive.
In one YouTube episode, McGee captures a lizard using a "lasso." She explains that, traditionally, the technique – which requires looping a string around a lizard's body – is called noosing. As a Black woman in a white-dominated field, she felt compelled to replace the term, which carries significant historical weight, with a gentler one – lassoing.
McGee said the feedback she receives from followers helps her improve her science communication and advocacy.
"With YouTube right now, I'm just trying to put stuff out there to practice being in front of the camera and figuring out what I want my on-camera persona to be – how I want to teach people this information. Right now, it's trial and error. I realize it will take time, but I'm all for that challenge," McGee said. "And I might be making these videos with my phone, but I want it to look more polished and look like I have whole production crew."
Because of her work, McGee made Forbes' list of 30 Under 30 to look out for in 2021.
Her science communication and advocacy efforts are just as focused offline.
"I want to do the science, but I'm also interested in social justice," McGee said. "There's no real separation for me. If you want to advance the field of natural resources, then you also have to make sure it's diverse and inclusive."
McGee was one of the co-organizers of Black Birders Week, an online movement to bring awareness to Black birders who face certain risks while birding that their non-Black counterparts do not. The series of online events was a response to police brutality against Black Americans and to a Central Park bird-watching incident, in which a white woman called the police and falsely claimed a Black man bird watching was threatening her and her dog.
McGee also was recently recognized as a 2020 AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellow and an American Association for the Advancement of Science IF/THEN Ambassador to serve as a high-profile STEM role model for middle school girls.
McGee, along with UArizona's Community and School Garden Program's Jessie Rack and Steward Observatory's Burcin Mutlu-Pakdil and Erika Hamden, was one of 121 ambassadors from around the country to be honored with a 3D-printed life-size statue at NorthPark Center in Dallas, Texas. McGee's statue was one of six to also be displayed in New York's Central Park Zoo until the end of the year.
"Earyn will always fight for what's right and say what needs to be said. She is fearless in that regard, and I admire her enormously for that," Bogan said. "She also places equal efforts into her research, her community engagement and her training of the next generation of students – something I strive to do myself but often fail. Earyn is also an incredible catalyst for change and for action."
Each year, McGee serves as a graduate student mentor for a consortium of universities participating the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program. She guides two UArizona undergraduate students that participate in the program through a summer of field research. Her goal is to help them prepare a research poster for a major conference and give them hands-on experience working with national nongovernmental organizations.
"Figuring out what the students like and don't like and watching them grow and graduate and move on has been one of the most rewarding things I've ever done," McGee said. "Doing stuff like that is important. There are so many scientists out here doing excellent research while also being excellent mentors."
In 2015, when Bogan reached out to George Middendorf, McGee's undergraduate adviser at Howard University, to ask if he had any student researchers interested in going to graduate school in Arizona, Middendorf said, "Not only do I have one who has already studied lizards in the Chiricahuas for two summers with me, but she is also one of the very best field biologists I've ever seen in all my years of teaching."
"Earyn can basically accomplish anything she sets her mind to doing," Bogan said. "I know that's a cliche, but in Earyn's case it's true."
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