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Kissing Bugs

 September 30, 2020 at 9:10 AM PDT

KISSING BUGS || KAYLEE ARNOLD Ikran: You might not think of twitter as a place where scientists congregate. Margot: Yes Ikran, that’s what I thought when a classmate told me it might be a useful site to join. But then I was amazed at how many niches there were for specific types of science. Like I use it to find academic papers I should read and ask questions about specific fruitfly neuroscience methods. Ikran: Sure, I mean I don’t think everyone uses twitter for that purpose (hah). But, there is also another big benefit, especially for people from underrepresented groups like myself. You can find your people and build community. Margot: And there has been a movement lately of Black scientists, organizing on social media to share their experiences and celebrate their science Today’s rad scientist, ecologist Kaylee Arnold, was part of that movement at the early stages. I follow her on twitter and I remember seeing her post with the hashtag #BlackInNature where she posted a picture of herself in the water, in a boat and on land wielding a shovel. Here she is explaining why this hashtag was so important to her. Kaylee: You may not know, if you turn on the TV, you would never see all the Black people that enjoy the outdoors. Like Black folks have been outside forever. You know, like, we both love nature, we’re both outside in nature, we work in nature, and it’s not just a space reserved for white people. Margot: On this episode, you’ll hear about Kaylee’s work outside - doing research and advocacy. Ikran: Don’t touch that dial because ... Kaylee: This is Rad Scientist Margot: Kaylee Arnold, now a PhD student at the University of Georgia, grew up right outside Camp Pendleton. Kaylee: You know, like I’m the Southern California girl. Margot: She says that growing up around so many diverse habitats – the ocean, the desert, the mountains – got her interested in studying biology at the University of Redlands just east of LA. When she got back home, she wasn’t quite sure what to do next. Kaylee: I was trying to decide what to do – sort of figure out my life.I was like a fresh 22 year old of college. Margot: So she volunteered at the San Diego Zoo. It’s here that she learned about the field of wildlife disease science. After a one year master’s program at Tulane, she decided to dig deeper by pursuing a doctorate. Kaylee: So that’s my little story from, uh, how I went from San Diego County all the way out to Georgia. Margot: While Kaylee’s school is in Georgia, she does a critical part of research in Panama where she stays in Panama City. Kaylee: So it was a cool mix of like, you know, like a city I've used to, but then like surrounded by like tropical animals around. Like, I would see like sloths, like outside of my apartment and like monkeys, like coming through, palm trees everywhere. Margot: And those palm trees are where her research subjects live. Way up in the crowns. Kaylee: We had a big ladder, um, and then one of us would climb up, kind of like hack at the Palm tree and to try to like pull out the, like, pull away the fronds and like the leaves. Margot: There was only one small problem with this scenario. Kaylee: I'm afraid of Heights, so I only did it like a few times. I kind of like, let my lab, mate do it a little more. Margot: Ok, so mostly Kaylee’s research partner used the ladder. And once they pulled away the fronds, they’d set a trap. Nothing too fancy. Kaylee: It’s just the T end of a PVC pipe. Margot: Inside the pipe, a mouse, and on the outside of the pipe – double stick tape -- to capture Kaylee’s research subjects. The CO2 and other mousey odors waft out of the traps like a pie on a window sill. So who are these blood sucking creatures that will follow the scent trail. The creatures that Kaylee flies to Panama and climbs up a tree to retrieve against her own body’s pleas. Kaylee: They’re called kissing bugs. Margot: Oh that sounds really nice. Kaylee: So, um, they actually get their name because they tend to bite, um, kind of near people's mouths or eyes. Margot: Oh. (apprehensive) Kaylee: So typically people would get bit while they’re sleeping. Margot: Oh. (more apprehensive) Kaylee: They’ll feed on this mammal (Margot: the human), and then they will uh defecate, so poop on the mammal. Margot: It probably won’t get worse though. Kaylee: A parasite is found in the feces. Margot: Wow, I’m starting to love these bugs more and more. (sarcastic) Kaylee: So there's kind of like a little open wound from them feeding. And then what typically happens is that maybe someone will scratch or the animal worst scratch, and then they will get the feces into their bloodstream and then they become infected. Margot: This parasite that is passed from mammal to kissing bug to mammal causes what is known as Chagas Disease - a neglected tropical disease. It mostly affects people in Central and South America. And it is a really strange parasite because it can live in the body for years without someone knowing. It usually manifests like 20 to 30 years after infection and it can cause severe heart disease. And as Kaylee said, the parasite lives in the guts of these unassuming, brown, kissing bugs. But it’s something else that lives in kissing bug guts that interests Kaylee. Bacteria. Just like in humans, insects have a microbiome. Kaylee: A combination of three, four, you know, tens of thousands, millions of bacteria, all kind of like working together. Margot: And there can be many different species of bacteria living in guts. Sometimes the diversity itself, the number of different kinds of species, can impact an organism like the kissing bug. Kaylee: A more diverse gut typically means that the individual is healthier and then may be less susceptible to parasites, um, coming in and invading them. Margot: So if microbiome diversity is a key component of the kissing bug’s ability to harbor and transmit the parasite understanding conditions might contribute to this diversity will be very important. Kaylee: I'm looking to understand if deforestation or any other variables associated with deforestation has an impact on this diversity of the gut bacteria. Margot: This question takes Kaylee to different regions in Panama, some that are pristine forest and others that only have a few trees. Places where trees have been felled for agriculture or urbanization. And here’s what she found. Kaylee: Our kissing bugs that we collected in our forested areas have a greater overall like gut bacteria diversity versus in the pasture areas, I am finding that the overall gut bacteria diversity is lower. Margot: This made sense to Kaylee because the kissing bugs in the more forested areas have a wider range of animals to feed off of which could increase the species of bacteria they ingest. Kissing bugs In more forested areas also seemed to be infected less often with the parasite. Sometimes, all we know is that they seem to go together and then we weave together the most likely scenario until we can test causality by changing one factor in the equation. As scientists like to say: further research is needed. But this has been difficult recently - you know, because of COVID. Kaylee had to cancel a trip to Panama to do her field work and is instead studying kissing bugs in the lab to test some of these ideas. Instead, she’s had to continue her thesis without that data. Kaylee: I’m kind of in the process of adjusting one of my dissertation chapters to basically compensate for the fact that I’m not going to have this experimental data. Margot: Ecologists, like Kaylee: botanists, animal behaviorists, all sorts of scientists, conduct research outdoors, “in the field” as it’s called. That’s been tough for some because of COVID derailing their research, but doing outdoor work, especially in the states, has always been a challenge for Black scientists. Kaylee: Academia is not necessarily a safe space for Black people, you know, the outdoors is not necessarily a safe space for Black people and we need to talk about it so we can change it. Ikran: We need to be having these conversations. I think until something is caught on video, it’s hard for white people to imagine and recognize the threat that Black people face when in the outdoors. But it’s hard to deny when videos surface like the one that birder Chris Cooper took. This video captured his interaction with a white woman who threatened to call the cops on him and say an “African American is threatening her” after he asked her to put a leash on her dog. Margot: In a park where dogs are required to be leashed to protect wildlife. I think what was so disturbing about the video is her acknowledging and then weaponizing police brutality against Black people. Ikran: Yes. So this was the event that led Kaylee and other Black scientists, part of a group called BlackAFinStem, to come together and start a movement to amplify Black voices in STEM and reclaim the outdoors for Black folks. Margot: That story after the break. Margot: After the recent spate of police brutality against Black people, Kaylee, reflected on her career path. Kaylee: I do think about this a lot of what is even my purpose, like what, you know, I can't protect my future kids with a PhD. That's. Not gonna do anything. Um, is this something that I like, can. Feel good about continuing on. It's really hard to sit down and think about a dissertation when there's so many, like bigger things happening in the world. Margot: That uncertainty is compounded by being part of a program, a field, that doesn’t always value or affirm her worth, reinforcing the idea that she is there to meet quotas. Kaylee: That somehow white people, you know, earn everything they get, but then any person of color, it's like some, you know, like whether it's like a favor done, or just for like optics and that like. You know, I've also like earned my way in here and Truly just feeling like that token black person, um, that everyone can write on their grants and say like, look, we brought in Black and Brown people. Margot: She IS one of only a few Black scientists in her program - not many people to commiserate with about the umpteenth committee on equity and inclusion that she was asked to take part in. And that’s why Kaylee was drawn to that group of Black scientists online that go by BlackAFInSTEM. Kaylee: It was just like a space for Black scientists where they can both talk about like, you know, quote unquote nerdy things or science things. And, um, but then also have a community where we can air grievances that we faced on a regular basis or just talk about Black music or like Black hair and not have to explain ourselves. Margot: But then the group took on a different role after the video with Chris Cooper came out. Kaylee: Many many of the members are bird watchers themselves. And so we all just kind of in the group, we're talking about like, challenges of just being a black person in nature like make sure I’m not wearing a hood, make sure you can see my hands, make sure I’m wearing tighter clothes so they can’t assume I have anything under my jacket. Margot: These common experiences drove the group to come up with an idea, a way to not only share their experiences but lift up the voices of Black birders. Kaylee: You know, we should, we should have a day dedicated to black bird Watchers. No, we should have a week. Margot: Black birders week was a completely virtual experience and each day had an event or theme. Day one, Black nature lovers were encouraged to post pictures of themselves outdoors with the #BlackInNature hashtag. That’s when Kaylee posted pictures of herself doing research outside. Other days included Q and A’s and panels with prominent Black birders. Kaylee: And that's been one thing about like the black birders week that like, kind of just like within all the pain that we were all feeling and we were just like, we've I enjoy in nature. Let's talk about it. Like, that's gonna like be our strength. Margot: The whole campaign was a huge success and it inspired a series of other “BlackIn weeks” that have been happening ever since. BlackInNeuro, BlackMammologists, BlackInAstro, BlackInChem, BlackinBotany, BlackInGeoscience. Even though Kaylee isn’t an avid birder herself, she was inspired by the week to start a fundraiser called Binoculars for Young Black Birders to give K-12 students in her county school district access to binoculars and birding field guides. Between a GoFundME, personal donations, and a donation by Oconee Rivers Audubon Society, they raised over $18,000 in just a few weeks. This year and this online movement has solidified Kaylee’s drive to continue in science and continue as an educator and advocate to ensure that the next generation of Black scientists can thrive. Kaylee: Hey, like, you know, like, We're still fighting and you know, we'll still be fighting forever, you know? Cause we're still certainly nowhere close to being, um, you know, like a just to place. Like you, you still have to like, kinda like keep pushing forward and like, Find joy when you can find the light, just so that, you know, you can keep moving. Margot: If you want to check out this week’s “BlackIn” hashtags, check out “BlackInMicro” to learn about Black scientists studying microbiology - or the biology of tiny things, and #BlackInSTEMEd about Black science educators. Now it’s time for “Here’s some words you need to know today, with Ikran Ibrahim. Ikran: Today’s words are Imposter Syndrome - which describes a feeling like you don’t belong, that someone might find out that you aren’t supposed to be where you are, that you are a fraud or didn’t deserve your position even when outside indicators suggest otherwise. Imposter syndrome is often experienced in academic spaces, where it is most prevalent in women and underrepresented minorities and can cause mental distress. Margot: Thanks for that lesson, Ikran. Now for the credits. [Credits].On the next episode of Rad Scientist, you’ll meet Dr. Chandler Puritty, an ecologist among other things. Chandler: I am a classically trained field ecologist, a house plant and garden enthusiast, a civil rights in science activist as well as an artist and a psychic medium. I’m equally attached to all of those things. Margot: Don’t miss that episode, coming in two weeks. Stay Rad.

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Kaylee Arnold grew up in Oceanside, but moved to Georgia to pursue a PhD in ecology. Despite her fear of heights, Kaylee climbs high up in the palm trees of Panama to collect her research subjects, kissing bugs. She studies the gut bacteria of these parasite-carrying insects to broaden our understanding of how microbiome diversity is affected by environmental factors like deforestation. After the video was released of a white woman threatening to call the police on birder Chris Cooper, Kaylee and other Black scientists, part of the online group “BlackAFinSTEM”, started a social media campaign called Black Birders Week to celebrate Black excellence and reclaim the outdoors for Black scientists and outdoorsmen. Twitter handle: @Black_Ecologist To view the work that Kaylee does with EcoReach, the organization she paired with to fundraise for binoculars, visit Episode Music: Rad Scientist Theme Motif - Grant Fisher Out of the Skies, Under the Earth - Chris Zabriskie Sometimes - Frequency Decree Harmonium and Saz Beat Jam - Podington Bear Drama Queen - Podington Bear Movement Libre - Trypheme Rambling - Ketsa Dirty Wallpaper - Blue Dot Sessions Hip Hop Instrumental 2 - Ketsa Tu connais Barbar - Mocke Grasping - Ketsa