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On episode 41 of 17 minutes of Science we are joined by Dr. Theanne Griffith to discuss how she is mixing her passion for science with her passion for storytelling to create the STEM-themed chapter book series, The Magnificent Makers.
Dr. Griffith received her BA in neuroscience and Spanish from Smith College, and earned her doctorate in neuroscience from Northwestern University. She is currently an Assistant Professor at the University of California Davis.
Dr. Griffith has always loved science and storytelling, and her books blend these two passions by taking young readers on out of this world, science-focused adventures. The first three books in her series, How to Test a Friendship, Brain Trouble, and Riding Sound Waves are currently available, the fourth book in The Magnificent Makers series, The Great Germ Hunt, will be released later in 2021.
Tune into this episode as we discuss Dr. Griffith’s books, and the importance of representation in science.
Dr. Kat McCormick (Host): [00:00:09] I’m Kat McCormick and I’m a director of scientific strategy for InVivo Biosystems, and I’m here today with Theanne Griffith, who is a neuroscientist and also the author of a STEM themed chapter book series called The Magnificent Makers. Theanne, it’s really wonderful to have you on the show today.
Dr. Theanne Griffith (Guest): [00:00:30] Thank you. Yeah. The Magnificent Makers, it’s a little bit of a tongue twister. I kind of have a thing for alliteration, as readers of the book will realize.
Dr. Kat McCormick (Host): [00:00:40] I noticed that as I was reading some of the names, there’s the Maker Maze and some of the other chambers that you created. So the first question I wanted to ask you today is about your dual careers, that’s how I think of it. So you are not only an associate professor who is studying neuroscience and the dorsal root ganglion, as far as I understand from your background, you’re also the author of these chapter books for children. Which I think, as you’ve pointed out before, is a career that some people choose full time. So I wanted to kind of talk to you today about how you decided that you could pursue both that there was room for both in your life.
Dr. Theanne Griffith (Guest): [00:01:22] Yeah. So I’ve always been very passionate about both science and storytelling. I’ve always been very much an avid reader and really enjoyed writing. But for a long time, I just specifically focused on the science. And I think that’s a little bit because becoming an author, like, it’s not something that is really taught. Like you don’t really – in the way that we teach kids how to become scientists or how to become an astronaut. Right. It’s just kind of one of those careers that doesn’t ring a bell as being something that you would actively pursue full-time. So I always kind of went with the science for whatever reason. But then as I got older the desire to write and the desire to become a published author just never went away. And so I was actually, you know, I’ve told this story a bunch, but I was on maternity leave with my oldest daughter and I think it was postpartum hormones or something. But I was basically like, you know what, you can do this. And I went for it. And so far, it’s challenging and definitely requires some time management, but it’s just so much fun. It’s really hard for me to imagine myself not doing either one, you know, and while I will say my career as a scientist is definitely on the on the forefront, right. If I had to give up one, it would probably be writing children’s books. I absolutely love science. I love living on that edge of discovery, I guess. But I would not be fully fulfilled if I weren’t also writing children’s books. There’s something that’s very gratifying about, one, creating stories. I actually very much enjoy making up stories and then just tapping into that imagination that children have and throwing a bunch of science in there. It’s just very rewarding for me. So.
Dr. Kat McCormick (Host): [00:03:16] Yeah, I think it’s really wonderful that you found this way to bring your passion for science to this children’s literature field, and I think it also reminds me of what a creative endeavor science itself is. And sometimes we see science as being kind of monolithic or prescribed or like, there’s no there’s no room for creativity in there. And so I wanted you to talk a little bit about how creativity seeps into your lab as well.
Dr. Theanne Griffith (Guest): [00:03:46] Yeah, I would say even not just my lab, just in science in general, having what I call creative thinking skills. I think they’re not traditionally taught, I would say, in like the elementary, middle, high school even, phase of science. But yet it’s such a fundamental part of science. The most successful scientists aren’t the people who can memorize the most things right. They’re the people who see a problem that maybe no one else sees. Right. So forward thinking, creative thinking. They’re also people who might see we have this common problem and they’re able to see a solution that no one else has seen. And all of that really fundamentally takes creativity. It takes thinking outside of the box. Now, that is different than perhaps the creativity that is involved in writing fictional stories. But I would argue that they probably engage very similar neural circuits because it’s still tapping into something that is unknown, unexplored. You know on the frontier, whether it’s the frontier of science or the frontier of your imagination. It’s still the same idea. And creativity, like again, is just super essential to science. We’re always challenged to think creatively about problems and think creatively about the solutions. And so I think creativity and science really go hand in hand and should be taught as such.
Dr. Kat McCormick (Host): [00:05:16] Hmm, yeah, I think that’s really fascinating. I think you’re completely right about the way that creative thinking just kind of spurs scientific thought forward. So I want to ask a question about your books. Did you focus on the subject of your books around neuroscience, since that’s your own background? Or, how do you approach the whole breadth of science with the characters in your novels?
Dr. Theanne Griffith (Guest): [00:05:39] Yeah, so I definitely wrote one book about the brain because I had to. So that’s Brain Trouble, The Magnificent Makers, number two. But the other books are about senses, which definitely has a neuroscience component. It’s not written that way in the book, but, you know, there’s definitely – I’m a sensory neuroscientist and so I’ve tapped into my background there. But then the first book in the series is actually about ecosystems and food chains. So I’m not an ecologist. I haven’t taken an ecology class probably since high school or something like that. But something that I actually spoke about recently on a science communication panel, that we as scientists are more experts than we give ourselves credit for. And, you know, although my PhD and my background is in neuroscience, that training really gives me the ability to write for children over a wide swath of science topics. Right. I can write at a third grade level about ecosystems and food chains. And I know how to do the research. I know how to fact check myself really well to make sure that I’m presenting the facts in a way that is simplified but not wrong, because we know there’s like a fine line between simplifying science and then just creating these kind of myths that exist as a result. And so while my books cover a wide range of topics, we have book four coming out, and I’m really excited, in September. And that’s all about germs, which is clearly very timely. And then we also have a fifth book coming out in about a year from now about space. And I am also not an astronaut or a NASA engineer, but I know a thing or two about planets and I can describe them in a fun and exciting way for, to get kids thinking about becoming an astronaut one day. And so, again, while my background is in a very kind of particular part of the broader science bubble, I feel that we as scientists do have the ability to kind of reach out into different fields and use our – not our expertise in the sense of like our scientific expertise, but our expertise as scientists in terms of gathering, finding and evaluating information to then be able to write on a broad range of topics for kids. And that’s another fun part. You know, like I got to figure out how to describe black holes so that they would be understandable to an eight year old. And that was fun, because I had to learn enough about black holes to understand them, enough to then simplify it without creating any of these myths. So it was a lot of fun.
Dr. Kat McCormick (Host): [00:08:28] Does sound really fun. Do you think that beyond your book five, now that you have planned, that there’s going to be more adventures for your characters?
Dr. Theanne Griffith (Guest): [00:08:36] Yeah, I think so. I can’t say too much about that just yet, but I feel confident that there will be more of the Magnificent Makers series in the future. And I’m excited to see what topics that I have the chance to explore.
Dr. Kat McCormick (Host): [00:08:51] Have you had the opportunity to read any of your material to your children? I’m curious how they react to the idea of you writing this.
Dr. Theanne Griffith (Guest): [00:09:01] Yeah, it’s so funny. They really have grabbed onto it. And so my oldest daughter will be four in April and then my youngest daughter is two. So they’re a little bit on the young side. We’ve definitely read a few chapters, but they want me to read – because I think their attention spans or brain development is at a certain point, they kind of want me to read the first three to four chapters over and over and over. And once we start moving forward, they’re like, no, let’s go back. So we haven’t actually made it through a whole book, but we have re-read the chapters over and over again and they call it Mommy’s book, because there’s a picture of me in the back. So they see the book. And I’ve been trying to tell them that I wrote the words and that we have an illustrator, Reggie Brown, who is super awesome and that Reggie does the pictures. And so they get it in their two and four year old way. They know they’re Mommy’s books. And I think especially my almost-four-year-old is grasping the concept that, like, I wrote those books and so, it’s really fun. It’s really pretty cool to see. And they know the names of the characters except Dr. Crisp, they don’t get that. I don’t know why they have trouble with it with her. I’ve heard, my youngest calls her Mrs. Christmas. And my oldest, has called her Dr. Crispal and I was like, okay CRISP, and then we, we’ve worked on that, but they know Pablo and Violet very well.
Dr. Kat McCormick (Host): [00:10:27] Yeah, I bet that that’s really fascinating to them. This idea that you created these characters and now they’re kind of out there in the world. I’m really looking forward to reading them with my four year old now that I know about this series.
Dr. Theanne Griffith (Guest): [00:10:40] Thank you.
Dr. Kat McCormick (Host): [00:10:41] So I have – as I’ve learned about your books, I have learned that you are really inclusive in your writing style and especially in your creation of characters. So you have your two main characters and then you also have other characters like Henry, who has a sensory processing disorder, and Aria who’s immunocompromised. And so I’m just wondering, is that an intentional. Is that an intentional take? And how do you write about those characters differently, if at all?
Dr. Theanne Griffith (Guest): [00:11:11] Yeah, very intentional. Very intentional. Growing up as a young black girl interested in science in the 90s, there just weren’t books with main characters that look like me. You might see like a smattering in the background, like there was a black girl in the class in The Magic School Bus and whatnot. But there just weren’t, you know, lead strong lead characters that look like me. And I don’t think I realized how the lack of representation really affected me until I was older. You know, I’m fairly confident person. I can kind of, you know, and you hear this a lot from, like black people who kind of make it through the ranks in science, it almost [00:11:56] self-selects for people that just kind of have a certain [00:12:01]… I don’t know what the exact right word is, but where you can kind of push all the nonsense to the side, for better or worse, comes with the consequences and just kind of move forward. And I didn’t want kids to have to keep doing that. I didn’t want science to be selecting for people like myself who just kind of live in – and compartmentalize, maybe even over compartmentalize. I wanted it to be more inclusive. I wanted anyone who, for whatever reason, might feel like an outsider or might feel like they have something different about them. I want them to know that they, too, can become a scientist. You know. I’ve really been drawn to advocating for the disabled community. So Aria is not only immunocompromised, but she is also disabled. She has a prosthetic leg. And I feel that the disabled community has largely been ignored in science as an underrepresented group. In general in our country, a lot of their requests are deemed excessive or just brushed to the side. And so I really, it was really important to me to highlight neurodivergent folks like Henry, disabled folks like Aria, so that, again, kids reading these can just feel seen. Like there is nothing better than feeling seen as a little kid. I see it in my kids now. Right. My youngest daughter, like, is always trying to find people who are like her. Right. It’s very important to her to feel like she’s part of a group. And I want all kids to feel like they’re part of the science group. So, yes, it’s very intentional. It requires some work, and some fact checking. Like I went and I had a few people read Book Three that featured Henry because I wanted to make sure – I’m not neurodivergent and nor are anyone in my immediate circle. But actually the character Henry is named after and written after a friend of mine’s son. And I wanted him to feel seen. So I had her read it and she gave excellent feedback and just really made sure that I was staying true to a child with sensory processing disorder or autism or whatever. And she actually told me that her son Henry said that Henry Maker Maze was just like him. So that’s when I was like, ah, I did it. It worked out well. That was a really special message to receive from her.
Dr. Kat McCormick (Host): [00:14:33] Yeah, I think that that’s that’s really validating because I think you wouldn’t want to misrepresent any community that you’re really trying to make feel seen. So that’s, yeah. It’s interesting work to have to do. So I wanted to talk to you also about your history in going to a women’s college and how that aspect of going to a women’s college may have informed your path through writing this book. And also how it made you feel seen.
Dr. Theanne Griffith (Guest): [00:15:03] Yeah, I, oh gosh. I’m – so I’m a graduate from Smith College and I firmly believe that attending a women’s college was really fundamental to my scientific success. It’s well documented that graduates from women, graduates from women’s colleges do better in STEM careers. Maybe do better is not the right word, but are more likely to be in STEM careers than women who graduate from co-ed universities. And I think that’s just because it creates a kind of safe space and you can flourish in a safe space where you’re not afraid to raise your hand and you’re not afraid to raise your voice. You know, and in terms of how that influenced my books in the writing, Violet is very much like, I feel like Violet’s a Smithie, like she doesn’t know it yet, but she’s going to be a Smithie. Because you know, she’s just, take charge and kind of a little bit of a daredevil, a little bit of a risk taker. She takes up space with her hair and she’s tall. And all of those things are very carefully crafted and were definitely influenced by me going to a women’s college.
Dr. Kat McCormick (Host): [00:16:12] Yeah. And what do you think the role of literature is in creating a safe space or a mental safe space for the readers?
Dr. Theanne Griffith (Guest): [00:16:18] Yeah, it’s like, you know, feeling – okay, I’m being repetitive, but like – feeling safe. You know, feeling included – identifying with something. You know, especially with kids. I feel like at least when I was a kid, I got lost in books, like really lost in them. I was in whatever world I was reading and you couldn’t tell me otherwise, you know. And so being immersed in a world and feeling safe in that world, feeling seen and getting excited by all of those emotions I think is just awesome. And I hope I can do that for as many kids as possible.
Dr. Kat McCormick (Host): [00:16:56] Yeah, I hope you can, too. So we are coming up on our time for today, which is amazing because it’s felt so short. So I have one last question for you. What do you hope that kids reading your books take away from them?
Dr. Theanne Griffith (Guest): [00:17:11] I hope that they take away that science is fun, that science is an adventure, and that they too, can be good at science if they want to. You know, I’m not trying to brainwash all the kids and make like an army of scientists to take over the world. But you know, I think it is important in the same way that it’s important for kids to learn to appreciate art. You know, it is – and they don’t necessarily have to grow up to be artists. Right. But having an appreciation for art is important and understanding its value for our society is important. Same goes for science. You don’t have to grow up to be a scientist. But knowing the importance of science, being able to kind of appreciate good scientific work is is important. And so I want to plant those science seeds and early so that they feel that science is cool and accessible and fun.
Dr. Kat McCormick (Host): [00:18:00] Well, thank you so much, Dr. Theanne Griffith for joining us today. And thanks for everyone who attended. And we hope you all go out and buy her books. The Magnificent Makers.
Dr. Theanne Griffith (Guest): [00:18:14] Thank you so much.
Dr. Kat McCormick (Host): [00:18:17] Alright, bye Theanne.
Dr. Theanne Griffith (Guest): [00:18:17] Bye-bye.