Nifty Award: Erin McKenney

The Nifty Award is given by the Leadership in Public Science cluster, to recognize ambitious and well-designed activities by members of the NC State community that put publics at the center of science.

In this first award, we’re celebrating work by Erin McKenney, a postdoc at NC State who made this lovely, and accurate, watercolor for a citizen science project. We asked Erin to talk with us about her experiences as a public scientist and how she came to be a painter of guts.

Fill us in on the cool project that these images come from.
I am working with Dr. Caren Cooper to launch “Got Guts?”, a citizen science project that will engage hunters and anglers to document variation in gut morphology across wildlife species. It is generally known that gut morphology varies with feeding strategy: protein and fat are relatively easy to digest, so carnivores tend to have short, simple guts; but herbivores need longer guts to digest dietary fiber (with lots of help from gut microbes). However, gut morphology (that is, the presence/absence, relative size, and length of the stomach, small intestine, cecum, appendix, and large intestine) has only been documented in a handful of species worldwide – and, in many cases, these gut diagrams are drawn from a single representative individual: We have no idea how much one individual’s guts may vary from another’s, or what those differences might mean for nutrition or health.
This is where hunters and anglers come in: every animal harvested is a potential data point, that can help us map the uncharted variation within and across species.
What winding path has led you to combine art, citizen science, and animal guts?

My mother is an artist, and my father is an engineer… I’ve spent my life taking things apart (both literally and figuratively), figuring out how they work, and drawing pictures to make sense of things. I have always loved animals, and wanted to be a veterinarian as a kid, so mymom talked to our vet and set me up as an after-school volunteer. It was awesome! I worked my way up from observing exams, to observing surgeries, to assisting both and getting paid for it. Veterinary exams are like puzzles – you have to diagnose without any verbal clues from the patient (unless you count whimpers or growling) – and surgeries offered this incredible window to how our bodies work.

After college, I worked for Disney’s Animal Kingdom as a professional intern for nutrition and research. My mentor, Katie Sullivan, had us read a paper (Hofmann 1989) about the ecology of ruminants – how diet, gut morphology, microbes, body size, and social behavior are all intertwined – and I was completely hooked. Such a beautiful, complex story! Katie and Hofmann inspired me to go to NC State to get a Master’s in Animal Science, researching gut microbes in animals that consume different diets (gorillas, baboons, chimpanzees, and binturongs). From there I went to Duke to get a PhD, studying gut microbes in different lemurs at the Duke Lemur Center.
The more I learned, the more excited I was to share what I knew – so I started to teach, and to engage the public in all sorts of outreach events. I especially wanted to share the research experience – the challenge of exploring the unknown, and the thrill of discovery – so I began to incorporate novel research into my lesson plans, even before I knew that the name for that sort of approach is “citizen science”. One of my favorite things about coming back to NC State for a postdoc, and working in Rob Dunn’s lab, is that I get to combine all of these interests on a daily basis.
The cluster is all about public science. In your own work, how do you see the “public” part relating to the “science” part?
People make decisions every day, using the same critical thinking skills that are necessary to “do science”. This means that the entire public, across the globe, has the basic skills needed to help advance science – we (researchers) just need to figure out how to involve them.
For me, public science takes various forms – from research-based lesson plans that complement public school curriculum standards, to engaging local communities through events at the Museum of Natural Sciences and other open forums.  Even just talking to friends or acquaintances about my research interests… every conversation is an opportunity to engage, to make science and research more approachable – and to get feedback from the general public. That exchange of ideas is the most important, to gauge personal relevance and hear what folks are thinking about and what’s important to them… that sort of feedback is crucial to make the most of the public / science partnership – and in many cases, the public can enrich the science, by helping develop new hypotheses and research directions.
What would you say to someone who is just starting out?

If you don’t ask questions, you might never find out what untapped ideas and opportunities are out there.