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Lekelia 'Kiki' Jenkins: Dance with the waves

Mixing science and dance to explore and explain, a nationally recognized ocean scientist shares the origins of her love for nature

Photos of woman fishing, group of people dancing
June 22, 2022

Editor’s note: This story first appeared in ASU Thrive’s special photography issue, celebrating a day in the life of inspiring people across the ASU community. 

BALTIMORE — Lekelia “Kiki” Jenkins helped forge a field exploring marine conservation technology, which studies ways technology can protect the ocean environment. Her science has earned her many top honors, including her appointment to the Ocean Studies Board of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. In addition, the associate professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at ASU uses dance to help people better understand conservation problems and envision solutions. 

In this photo feature, go behind the scenes with her to get to the heart of her work, her inspirational effect on others, and her love for Earth’s natural beauty and wildlife.

In the above photo, she shows off the way she uses dance to understand science and nature. In the photo, Jenkins teaches local students science dance techniques, including “flocking,” modeled after the way starlings fly in harmonized, breathtaking murmurations.

Family posing in front of river

On Centennial Lake, (from left) brother Benjamin, mother Phyllis, Lekelia “Kiki” Jenkins, brother Leonard Jenkins and uncle Jerome Howard spend time together.

From Baltimore to Arizona

Jenkins grew up in Baltimore, and her family fished.

“Crabbing was my favorite activity,” she says.

Her love for being outdoors, for biodiversity and for fishing all seeded her purpose now as an ocean sustainability scientist. 

Two people preparing fishing lines

Jenkins and Benjamin, preparing for the day on the water.

People preparing to get into canoe

People in canoe on river

Connections nationwide supporting STEM

Mentoring future scientists is important, Jenkins says, especially for people who don’t often see themselves represented in STEM. On a Saturday in April, she visited with local university students from scuba and science clubs, exploring nature at a state park.

Woman buying fish at market stall

Collaboration is key

Jenkins’ work involves helping find and develop ways to protect both ocean life and fishers’ livelihoods. This involves working with, learning from and bringing together stakeholders.

Woman dancing in studio

Science dance

Jenkins, a dance minor in college, has always loved dancing and has used it as a way to understand and express concepts and emotions throughout her life. She has helped further pioneer the field of science dance, which seeks to communicate key aspects of technical research through body movement. “ASU is different. I can do science dance here as scholarship. It’s accepted and supported,” Jenkins says.

Through her “Sea Turtle Science Dance” and other works, Jenkins uses choreography to explain science. The dance has won awards at the International Sea Turtle Society competition and has been covered by the radio program “Science Friday.” 

Photos by Jeff Newton

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