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Lekelia “Kiki” Jenkins on the Power of Merging Science Outreach and Ocean Conservation

Lekelia “Kiki” Jenkins, Ph.D., sometimes encounters puzzling reactions to her equal passion for marine science and dance. But far from being a new or extreme concept, she says combining art and science reflects some of the most enlightening eras of human discovery. 

headshot of Lekelia “Kiki” Jenkins, Ph.D.
Lekelia “Kiki” Jenkins, Ph.D. Credit: IF/THEN® Collection

“If you look at natural historians, you drew what you saw in the world. Look at Michelangelo. Science and art went hand-in-hand because of how we recorded our findings and represented it to our colleagues. When computing and other things became more readily available, we divorced them, and not only did we divorce them, but we made them antithetical to each other,” says Jenkins, a marine conservation scientist at Arizona State University (ASU).

She says she often thought about how to use dance to reveal her research findings to a wider audience. Serendipitously, in 2008, AAAS introduced its “Dance Your Ph.D.” competition. Colleagues encouraged her to enter, and it paid off.

“For me, getting that second place [in the postdoc category] with the AAAS Dance Your Ph.D. program was what gave me the leverage and the license to be able to pursue science dance,” she says.

Jenkins realized how powerful participatory practices such as dancing can be for science engagement and science communication. Some of the dancers in her video have kept in touch and are still talking about sea turtle conservation. 

Lekelia “Kiki” Jenkins, Ph.D. in dance
Lekelia “Kiki” Jenkins, Ph.D. Credit: Daniel Suchman Photography

She has also found a home in an institution that puts its resources into projects that less courageous universities would dismiss as too risky. Jenkins says the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, College of Global Futures at ASU has given her a place for pioneering new approaches to problems.   

“No one tells you you can't do something. If you have an idea and you have the gumption, you can go after it. ASU is the only place where I've had people literally just walk up to me and say, ‘That idea that you were talking about in that meeting, I found really interesting. I have a few thousand dollars. How can I help you?’”

As the first African American woman to get a Ph.D. in marine science from Duke University, she’s familiar with accolades of “firsts and onlys.” But she’s also looking forward to those designations to be unnecessary.

Much of Jenkins’ marine research involves fresh approaches to fishing issues that have gone unresolved for generations. A first step is often leveling the playing field among groups that are not always in sync, such as governments, regulators and fishing communities.

“Fisheries learning exchanges (FLEs) were something that arose organically, often from people who were working at NGOs noticing, ‘Hey, this community is having a similar problem with this community.’”

Exchanges can span the globe, like linking Mexico and Madagascar, when fishers face challenges with similar species. Jenkins says it’s crucial to keep balance and respect when mixing the different experiences of participants. Her job as a scientist is to help identify the mechanisms that work, and why they work, so similar key principles can be used elsewhere.

One marine conservation success story that merged such diverse scientific and practical knowledge was the invention and promotion of the Turtle Exclusion Device, or TED. The device promotes “sea turtle conservation by addressing interactions between sea turtles and trawl fishing gear,” according to NOAA. It originated from a critical problem: marine scientists worldwide were alarmed at the number of endangered sea turtles getting trapped and drowning in fishing nets. But finding a solution to the issue was at times rocky.

Jenkins has published case studies on those thorny TED issues that for decades pitted conservation concerns against fishers’ livelihoods. Each group had a vastly different approach to the problem.

“It was difficult and it was contentious, finding a way that all these people who had expertise, who were relevant to solving this problem could talk together, could share ideas, could develop ideas when they had different ways of going about it.”

For example, Jenkins says there were scientists and engineers, rigid in their training to build and test prototypes and collect data in a very linear process. “And then you have these fishermen, which I discovered were using mental modeling, so they were basically building simulations in their brain, running very rigorous mental simulations, making mental modifications,” Jenkins says.

There were plenty of lessons learned, to make it more comfortable for people who have advanced degrees and people who may be functionally illiterate, to both be recognized for their value and intellect. The use of TED at local fisheries throughout the world remain divisive, as fishermen believe it could reduce their targeted catch. This makes Jenkins’ work all the more important—collaboration is not only key in the process of finding solutions, but also in the implementation of them. There is a way to ensure both sea turtles and fishers’ livelihoods are protected.

Because FLEs have some similarities to citizen science, Jenkins has worked with the National Academy of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) to maximize the knowledge and benefits in the design and effectiveness of those projects.

“We had an accepted finding that there were inequities in citizen science, that citizen science was not being populated by and serving minority communities, disenfranchised communities, and that's a big deal,” she says.

The NASEM researchers concluded that learning happens by design and intent, and should aim to empower citizen science participants. So instead of just collecting data, participants may be asked to take on a larger role, using the knowledge they gain to advocate for policy and regulatory changes in their communities. This conclusion plays into Jenkins’ work as a AAAS IF/THEN® Ambassador as well, where she aims to inspire others to their own STEM discoveries.

Just as Jenkins has helped merge the powers of art and science through dance, she is working toward solutions for marine conservation by finding the proper mix of people worldwide who know technology, and others who have secured their livelihoods through fishing for many generations.

Diversity, equity and inclusion are critical. And they are seldom easy.

“Often when I'm giving a talk around, ‘Who are you partnering with to solve ocean problems?,’ I will say to the audience, ‘If you're sitting in a meeting with your collaborators and you're just comfortable, you probably don't have the right group of people. Because if it was that comfortable of an issue, then we wouldn't be having a problem.’”

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