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Originally published Sunday, February 24, 2013 at 8:00 PM

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Natural science, social science mix in young researcher’s work

For a young University of Washington researcher, engaging people is the key to saving animals.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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“Jenkins is one of three University of Washington faculty members awarded... MORE

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Everything seems to come together in Lekelia (Kiki) Jenkins’ life, even things that we aren’t used to seeing in tandem. For instance, she’s both a natural scientist and a social scientist.

Jenkins is one of three University of Washington faculty members awarded Sloan Research Fellowships by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The fellowships recognize young scientists and scholars who, based on their early work, are expected to be future leaders in their fields.

The two other UW Sloan fellows are James Carothers, an assistant professor in chemical engineering, and Daniela Witten, an assistant professor of biostatistics in the School of Public Health.

Jenkins said the Sloan recognition will give her approach an extra stamp of approval, and the $50,000 that comes with it will allow her and the graduate students she works with to take on more innovative projects.

Being innovative is part of her makeup.

Jenkins is an assistant professor (since 2011) in the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs and a conservationist who believes that if you want to protect animals, you have to start by understanding and working with people.

That insight came from a volunteer gig at the zoo in Baltimore when she was in middle school: “Seeing how all these species that were endangered that we were trying to breed and to protect, a huge portion of why they were endangered was human activities. I began to understand the problem is also about people.”

She recently finished a paper on a project involving turtles that are caught by fishermen trying to bring in fish or shrimp. She studied the technologies and techniques being used to avoid killing turtles and she surveyed and interviewed people in fisheries and in fishing communities. Two years ago, she was working with a team in Ecuador, stretching her Spanish-language skills and exploring ways to cross cultural differences to get locals to embrace practices that worked for people and turtles. She did that work because she was thinking that down the road there would be an effort to export the successes the United States has had saving turtles to other countries and her information would help. As it happened her work came out just as the U.S. government is beginning to craft a plan on turtle survival in Mexico fisheries.

She was thinking ahead, like she was when she tried to translate her middle-school idea into a doctorate that combined social and natural science. Jenkins applied to 10 schools and all but one said either we don’t do that, or you shouldn’t do that. Duke University said it would make it work, and that is where she earned her doctorate in marine conservation.

Jenkins is not easily deterred. I figured that when I saw the face of Shirley Chisholm — a black New York congresswoman who ran for president back in 1972 — above her desk, on a poster for Chisholm’s 1972 campaign. I asked Jenkins about her path into the sciences.

She said her first science fair, in fourth grade, hooked her on the sciences, and her mother nurtured that interest by signing her up for every science camp that came along. Her mother got her the volunteer job at the zoo. Jenkins said her mother, who worked part-time jobs while she and her two brothers were growing up, went back to school recently and earned a bachelor’s degree in recreational therapy at age 64.

Jenkins said her love of animals comes from her father, a dentist, who spent a lot of his free time raising everything from turtles to ducks and even an alligator. He was a championship breeder of American singing canaries and at one point had 150 on their enclosed porch.

She said that sometimes people here ask what it was like growing up in Baltimore. “They think it was like ‘The Wire,’ ” she said, but it wasn’t for her. Some of her fondest memories are of fishing and crabbing on Chesapeake Bay, which is why she loves the water and coastal cities like Seattle.

She’s just starting a tidal-energy development project on Puget Sound. She’s the social-science lead. Jenkins also is working to create ties between science and the arts, particularly using the arts to communicate to lay people ideas they aren’t likely to get from scientific papers.

Jenkins minored in dance at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and just joined a dance group in Fremont. She sees no reason to force the various aspects of life into different boxes. She does science, she dances and choreographs, she mentors and is active in her church. Integrating social and natural science in her work isn’t an anomaly, it’s just part of how she believes life should be. (She got a bunch of scientists to perform her Sea Turtle Conservation Dance.)

Things don’t just come together for Jenkins, she weaves them together.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com Twitter @jerrylarge

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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

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