By Cheyanne Lewis
Dr. Theanne Griffith, Associate Professor at University of California Davis and author of the children’s book series The Magnificent Makers.
In celebration of #BlackinSciComm week, I interviewed Dr. Theanne Griffith (@doctheagrif on Twitter), Associate Professor at UC Davis and science communicator. Here, I will tell her story of how she turned her passions into a flourishing career, and how she quickly had to adapt from science writing to writing books for children.
In 2004, Theanne was an incoming freshman at Smith College, double majoring in Neuroscience and Spanish. Over the course of four years, she worked in an electrophysiology lab where she was introduced to the intricacies of neuroscience research. This experience is what initially sucked her into the world of research, and while she was passionate about science, she was dedicated to learning and speaking Spanish. So when she was presented with the opportunity to study abroad, she quickly hopped on a plane straight to Chile. She loved it so much that she applied for an internship that summer and was accepted to work at the Catholic University of Chile. Following the internship, she was invited back, and so after graduating in 2008, she returned to Chile for two years working as a post-baccalaureate research assistant.
“It was my first experience in a more research intensive environment… This was like a publish and perish style research environment. [It was] a lot of fun, learned a lot of Spanish, you know, kind of honed my research interests a bit.”
After earning her PhD at Northwestern University, she continued studying electrophysiology as a postdoc at Columbia University. Today, she is an associate professor at the University of California Davis, where she focuses her research on how the nervous system transmits and encodes sensations such as pain and temperature.
But this only covers a small part of her identity. In fact, science is just a glimpse into her story as a Black neuroscientist, children’s author, and mother of two.
Stained dorsal root ganglion (DRG) neurons. Photo courtesy of Theanne Griffith.
Encouraging Tiny Scientists
When I asked about how she ventured into writing children’s books, she revealed that her decision to pursue a career in writing was very much unplanned.
“They’re kind of two separate stories, right, they’re not really intertwined, per se. And that’s mainly because the story side of me has always been there but I haven’t actively pursued it until the last three years or so.”
Her love for reading and storytelling go back to when she was a child, but it took many years before she even considered it a career option. “I was the library kid with 25 million books on the weekends with my dad. So I’ve always very much enjoyed writing… It was almost like a hobby.”
In 2017, while on maternity leave with her first daughter, she experienced what she calls an “existential crisis”. Theanne wasn’t sure what she was doing with her life or how she wanted to move forward, but it didn’t take long before she took the plunge. She created a website, changed her Twitter handle, and started branding herself as an author. Next thing she knew, an editor from Random House Children’s Books followed her on Twitter and sent an email interested in publishing a STEM themed book series.
Thus, The Magnificent Makers was born. Theanne has written three books in the series with the fourth and fifth coming in 2021 and 2022 respectively.
“It’s really been a dream come true. I still kind of can’t fully believe that it’s like real.”
As she continues to brainstorm adventures, she thinks back to conversations she has had in the past with parents wanting to introduce their children to STEM. As someone who was a nanny for over six years, I understand how difficult it can be explaining complex ideas in science to young minds.
“The most important thing for becoming a good scientist is learning how to ask good questions and then answer them in systematic ways. So if we can just get our kids curious and asking questions, even if right now they’re not like discovery questions… it just matters that you’re starting to get creative in how you figure out how the world works.”
Much of this thinking is prevalent in graduate school where there is less of an emphasis on finding the answers to every question, and more of a focus on having that curiosity to become an independent learner. These ideas have been woven into the storyline of each book of The Magnificent Makers, where two best friends, Pablo and Violet, work their way through challenges. One challenge consists of three levels, and each level is based on a scientific question that must be solved within a certain time limit.
“I’m definitely trying to kind of put that agency into the kids at a young age so they realize that they’re in charge of their science learning.”
Battling the Learning Curve
In terms of science communication, Theanne is most familiar with writing. As a scientist, much of her training has been “write and revise, write and revise.” Having the ability to edit compulsively is essential because there is a certain level of persistence that comes with tackling a project until it is just about perfect.
“The purpose of scicomm is to get a very general audience excited about something scientific, and so to make something digestible for a more broad audience takes a lot of back and forth. So you kind of have to be patient, and you really need to start practicing your writing skills based on the audience you’re writing for.”
However, the process of writing a children’s book is an entirely different beast. Theanne faced a learning curve when trying to convey science in a way that was easy for seven to ten year olds to understand. When describing this process, she admitted that her first draft was less than perfect: “My first draft was pretty bad. Mainly because I was still grappling with creating the world, still grappling with developing the characters, and on top of that, trying to throw science in… What I had to learn in book one was how to incorporate the science without the book being about the science… It was a delicate balance to find.”
By book three, she knew exactly what kind of balance she was looking for, and so the first draft required the least amount of major edits. In fact, the latest book she’s written, which has yet to be released, was the fastest for her to write.
“I’ve kind of found my rhythm, I found my voice.”
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Research and STEM
Even in elementary school, Theanne remembers being one of the only Black students in her class. This continued into college, watching a few peers drop out of some of the earlier classes. As a graduate student, she was one of two Black students in a class of 150, and it wasn’t until her senior year that she connected with an incoming first year who attended her defense.
“I love to pass the torch on to the next Black woman who is like the lone representative for, again, 150 students. So there’s definitely a problem in terms of attracting and retaining [Black students].”
At UC Davis, Theanne is happy to be a part of a program where BIPOC faculty are connected across departments. Through this program, they are able to build a community, share their stories and lean on one another. She explains that “finding your people is really important, and institutions can support you in doing that or not. And if they don’t support you in doing that, they’re going to run the risk of losing you, probably because you’re already in the sea of white.”
That community becomes especially important because imposter syndrome is a very real experience for many BIPOC. Self doubt runs rampant, and there is a question of belonging.
“It’s important to have colleagues who are also from minority groups, telling you ‘No, you belong here’. ”
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