Arts Science & Technology

Kaylee Arnold is a scientist, dancer and educator

On any given day, you might find ecology doctoral student Kaylee Arnold in the lab, analyzing the gut microbes of kissing bugs she collected in Panama; teaching a class in hip-hop or rehearsing with one of the performance companies at Dancefx; leading a science workshop for teens at the Athens-Clarke County Library—or possibly all three.

Arnold arrived at UGA in 2016 to join the IDEAS (Interdisciplinary Disease Ecology Across Scales) doctoral program, which is designed to provide students with a big picture perspective on how infectious diseases emerge and spread.

With her interest in science initially sparked by many childhood visits to the San Diego Zoo, Arnold started college intending to prepare for a career as a wild animal veterinarian—until she took an undergraduate course in marine ecology, which set her on a new path. After receiving a master’s degree in ecology and evolutionary biology from Tulane University, she entered the IDEAS program at UGA. Her research, under the direction of associate professor Nicole Gottdenker in the College of Veterinary Medicine department of pathology, is focused on how human activities influence disease transmission, specifically how deforestation may be affecting the gut microbiome of kissing bugs, the insects that spread the parasite that causes Chagas disease.

“We’re sampling in Panama across a deforestation gradient to see if that impacts the gut microbes present in kissing bugs and then what that means for transmission of the Chagas disease parasite,” she said. “So we’re looking across the landscape to see what kind of patterns emerge, and then going down to the individual microbial level.”

Like her interest in science, Arnold’s involvement in dance also started in childhood.

“I started dancing when I was about 3 years old, and I did competitions and danced all through high school and college, and then between college and graduate school I danced with the hip-hop crew at UC San Diego,” she said. When she moved to Athens, she was thrilled to discover Dancefx, a local nonprofit studio with classes and performance companies in a variety of styles.

“It’s just a really cool community of people of all levels and all ages,” Arnold said. “I’ve been at the studio since I came here, dancing in one of their companies and I’m now also teaching classes in tap, hip-hop and burlesque aerobics.”

Arnold is equally passionate about her work as co-president of EcoReach, a student-run outreach organization based in the Odum School of Ecology that provides environmental science education for Athens-area K-12 students.

“It’s such a rewarding organization,” she said. EcoReach projects include visiting local classrooms to lead activities that enhance the environmental science curriculum, helping out at the Clarke County School District Science Fair, offering an annual daylong workshop that allows Boy Scouts to earn the environmental merit badge, participating in school career fairs, and hosting a monthly after-school science program for teens at the Athens-Clarke County Library.

Arnold said that although they’re very different, she considers dance and science to be equally important parts of who she is. And, somewhat to her own surprise, so is sharing her knowledge about them.

“I’ve found that I really enjoy teaching, and that’s something I never thought I would like,” she said. “I like being in the classroom with young kids, and I enjoy teaching dance. It builds confidence, pulling from my own expertise and bringing it to other folks, and seeing it empower them. I just love that.”