Focus in Sound - Ep. 25

Theanne Griffith

Welcome to FOCUS In Sound, the podcast series from the FOCUS newsletter published by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.  I’m your host, science writer Ernie Hood.

In this edition of FOCUS In Sound, we meet a Burroughs Wellcome Fund grantee who is not only an accomplished scientist, but also a published children’s book author.

Dr. Theanne Griffith has just had the first two of her three-book STEM-themed chapter book series called The Magnificent Makers released, with number 3 scheduled to come out in September 2020.

Griffith is an instructor in the Department of Physiology, Pharmacology, and Neuroscience at Rutgers University. She is a neuroscientist with a Ph.D. from Northwestern University. She completed her postdoc at Columbia University in 2019. In 2017 she was recognized in the Burroughs Wellcome Fund’s Postdoctoral Enrichment Program. The PDEP provides a total of $60,000 over three years to support the career development activities for underrepresented minority postdoctoral fellows.

Theanne Griffith, welcome to Focus in Sound…

Thank you, I’m really delighted to be here.

Theanne, I’d like to start our conversation by getting to know you a bit more…tell us about your journey, and what got you to where you are today, as both an academic researcher and an author…

Well, I’ve definitely always been a science kid. Ever since I was little, I’ve been really fascinated and curious about the world around me, and understanding it. When I was younger I went through phases of wanting to be a vet, and then a doctor, but then when I was in high school, I took an AP biology class, where I was introduced to neuroscience. And then I absolutely fell in love with neuroscience, and went on to pursue my bachelor’s at Smith College, and subsequently I got my doctorate at Northwestern University. I’ve always been really excited about research and fascinated by the brain and our nervous system in general. But something that I’ve also always been really passionate about was reading and writing, or storytelling.

I’ve always had kind of a dream of becoming an author, but I didn’t necessarily know how to accomplish that, and I think I just spent a lot of time just focusing on science, perhaps a more traditional career path. But then when I was working as a postdoc at Columbia University and I was on maternity leave with my first daughter, I kind of had this, like, epiphany where I decided, you know, now’s the time. If you really want to be a writer, just go for it. And I always knew I wanted to write children’s books. Children’s books I feel like are very special, and you really have an opportunity to engage kids in whatever you’re writing at such an early age when their imagination is really limitless. And so, you know, I started, I created a website, I did all of the things to try and pursue this career as an author, and I was contacted by an editor at Random House. She was really interested in acquiring a STEM-themed chapter book series, and given I was a scientist and a writer, she thought that I might be interested in the opportunity. And I was definitely very interested!  And so I guess from there it just kind of snowballed, and The Magnificent Makers were born.

That’s wonderful…tell us a bit more about The Magnificent Makers…

The Magnificent Makers are the STEM-themed chapter book series. These chapter books are kind of early readers for recently independent readers, ages about 7-10. They also kind of work as read-alouds for younger children, because they’re heavily illustrated.  And I just want to give a little shout out to the awesome illustrator of the series, Reggie Brown.  He’s done an amazing job bringing the characters to life and really keeping kids engaged through the artwork. These books follow best friends Pablo and Violet on out-of-this-world science adventures in this magical Maker space, or laboratory called the Maker Maze. And the Maker Maze is run by this very eccentric, kind of kooky scientist called Dr. Crisp. And in each book, they cover a different science topic.  They’re transported through this magical portal to the Maker Maze after receiving a riddle from Dr. Crisp.  And then while they’re there, they have a challenge that they need to complete in 120 Maker Minutes if they would like to be able to return. And since they love science so much and they really have fun in the Maker Maze, they’re always kind of rushing against the clock to make sure they finish the challenge in time so that they can return. And each challenge has three levels, and again, they have 120 Maker Minutes to beat all three levels and finish before time is up. And so along with a different science theme being part of each book, there’s also kind of a real-life lesson that is conveyed. In the first book, How to Test a Friendship, kind of as the name implies, there are some friendship issues where one of the main characters, Pablo, feels a little bit jealous by this new kid Deepak, who ends up going along on the adventure with him and Violet. And he has to work through those emotions of jealousy and friendship. And in Book 2, which is all about the brain, it’s called Brain Trouble, so not only do they learn about the brain, they also learn how important it really is to work as a team. Then finally, Book 3 is called Riding Soundwaves, and that book is all about our senses, and the kind of life lesson or whatever, like ultimate storyline, is that the kids learn about appreciating and understanding differences.  Because one of the characters that goes along with them to the Maker Maze, Henry, he reveals at the end that he has sensory processing disorder, and that explains some of his odd behavior while he was in the Maker Maze.  So that’s kind of the gist. Like I said, the main characters are Pablo and Violet, but each book always brings in a new group of people that also accompany them to the Maker Maze. So it’s a lot of fun, a lot of action, a lot of learning that also goes along in the story. 

Tell us about the hands-on activities included with the books.

Yeah, thank you for reminding me.  Each book at the end comes with two hands-on activities, because science is something that is very much a hands-on thing. There’s definitely the intellectual side of science, but there’s very much, you know, researchers literally doing science. It was important to have that tie in with the books.  And during their challenge, Pablo and Violet are always tasked with making something.  In the first book, they have to make, for example, a plastic bottle boat.  And at the end of the book, there are instructions for kids to actually make that same boat. There’s always instructions where they can make the exact same thing that Pablo and Violet made in the book, and then there’s a second activity as well that maybe, is usually a little bit more maybe STEAM, a little bit more arts involved for kids who have a more artistic leaning, they can still have that tie-in with STEM. 

You speak quite affectionately of your characters. Have they really come alive for you as part of this process?

Very much. And it’s kind of strange how that happens. As I was kind of preparing for my writing journey and trying to inform myself and listening to a lot of podcasts, I heard authors talk about that—how their characters kind of take on a life of their own and kind of become extensions, become their own entity that are almost independent of the author.  And at first I thought that was cliché, but it’s very true.  It’s surprisingly true, especially the more and more you write them. They just kind of take on this world as their own, and they just kind of exist almost outside of you. And I do kind of feel like affection for them.  And it’s nice that Reggie has done such a nice job with the illustrations, because then I have an actual visual, when I think of a very concrete person, what they look like and everything.  It’s fun. It’s great.

Do you think your characters will help recruit children of color to STEM?

One thing that was really important for me was that the characters that are in these books that are going on these awesome science adventures are both brown and black children. Because as a black woman growing up in the 90s, I had very few examples of black children in general in the books that I was reading, let alone in science books. Having black and brown children at the forefront, on the cover, having fun, being smart, and not really necessarily talking about the fact that they’re black and Latino, they just kind of are, those are things that are just kind of given, that was extremely, extremely important for me.  And I really hope two outcomes come from that, one being that black and brown children see themselves, feel represented, feel seen, you know, have new role models to kind of look up to. And then also that white children see black and brown children going on science adventures, it also sits within their conscience that science is for everyone, and everyone can be good at science. There’s no natural tendency to be good at science that’s based on either your gender or your race.

Theanne, what did writing the children’s books bring to your science writing?  I would think they would be very dissimilar skills…

I would say that it’s almost the opposite—that a lot of the training that I’ve had writing science has been very helpful for writing these books. And that’s mainly because, one, you’re taught to be a good writer as a scientist, it’s a very important part of your career. You have to write grants, you have to write papers, and you have to be able to communicate complicated ideas effectively, and make people excited about them. And that is more or less what I’ve had to do with The Magnificent Makers.  Obviously there’s huge differences in terms of the language, and again, the creative aspect of it.  But the overall story arc, the idea of like the beginning, middle, end, all of that translates from science writing.  It’s just, language is very different. That was probably one of the most challenging things was writing about these scientific topics at a level that was exciting and digestible for 7-10-year-olds. I feel I have gotten some practice now at conveying complicated ideas for even 7-10-year-olds, I think it could be helpful in learning how to boil down my science for maybe a more lay audience, for sure.

So Theanne, have you had any pushback from your scientific colleagues about your children’s book writing?

Yeah, that was something I was definitely nervous about, mainly because I think there’s a strong appreciation for science outreach, going to museums and doing events or hosting…I did a bunch of brain fairs when I was in grad school. We did classroom visits, and I did those as a postdoc as well.  And I think that kind of outreach is generally looked upon favorably, but this was different, because this is almost like a second career, and I feel like that is not looked upon favorably in science. Like you’re supposed to dedicate your full focus to science, and I was for sure nervous in that regard.  That being said, I’ve had basically zero pushback. Everyone just thinks it’s cool and needed, and I’ve gotten such you know amazing feedback from parents about how much their kids love the books.  And because in the end they’re science books, you know, like this is the goal of getting kids excited about science. And really, it doesn’t take up that much of my time, it’s not like I’m writing, I don’t know, 20 books or that I’m writing three novels. These are pretty short. It fits well into my schedule as kind of like a hobby, and I think that’s how people are seeing it and appreciating it, versus it being this competing career, or somehow I’m not taking my science seriously, because it’s definitely not the case.

Well that’s great to hear. Theanne, we certainly want to spend some time on your scientific pursuits…tell us briefly about your research program…

As I mentioned earlier, I am trained as a neuroscientist, and specifically I’m an electrophysiologist. I’m really interested in how neurons transmit electrical signals and what the proteins are that are important for a given neuron’s function in transmitting these electrical signals. And specifically, right now I’m focusing on the peripheral nervous system, somatic sensation and within the somatic senses I’m most interested in how our peripheral nervous system encodes cold sensation.  You know when you walk outside and you get big gust of air in February, how do you know that that’s cold?  And that’s a really important question, because we need to be able to perceive our environment and avoid potentially harmful, you know, ambient temperatures if we’re confronted with them. It’s a very important, fundamental basic science question. How does our peripheral nervous system sense cold sensations?  And I use, again, electrophysiological techniques and transgenic mouse models that lack given ion channels in order to better understand peripheral processing of cold sensations.

Thank you for that summary. Theanne, you recently mentioned on Twitter how supportive the Burroughs Wellcome Fund is of their fellows…what has your experience been?

I just feel tremendously lucky to be part of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund family. They’ve been, from day one, just, you can just feel the love. I don’t know how, if there’s a better way to describe it. But you can just feel the love, again, I am a Postdoctoral Enrichment Award fellow, or a PDEP fellow, and as part of the program, your first year they fly everyone out to North Carolina headquarters, you just have a meeting with all of the other fellows and different awardees from other programs.  And it was just fantastic, and you could tell then, basically day one, just how invested they were in your success. And that’s proven true with time. Last year I reached out to Burroughs Wellcome Fund, I was helping organize a conference, an international conference with the Society for General Physiologists, and I reached out to see if there would be any way that Burroughs Wellcome Fund would sponsor the meeting in any way, shape or form. And that was important for me for two reasons. One, because I was really excited about the meeting, I was on the council at the time, so I was helping plan it. But also it allowed me to show my colleagues that look, I have connections in science, and I can fundraise for scientific meetings.  That’s a very kind of important benchmark that scientists who are pursuing independent careers need to demonstrate, and I was able to do that with the support of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. That’s just one small example. And then obviously they’ve been so, so supportive and excited about the books, and helping me spread the word. I really couldn’t say better things about them. I’m telling everyone that I know that is eligible for the PDEP program, I’m always encouraging them to apply, just because it’s such a wonderful family to be a part of.

Theanne, it’s been wonderful speaking with you. Keep up the good work, both scientific and literary.  We wish you the best for great success with the Magnificent Makers series. Thank you for speaking with us. 

Thank you so much for having me.  I appreciate the opportunity.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this edition of the FOCUS In Sound podcast.  Until next time, this is Ernie Hood.  Thanks for listening!