21 The Magnificent Dr Griffith
For our very first episode of Season III, I spoke with neuroscientist and children’s book author Dr Theanne Griffith, principal investigator at the University of California, Davis researching the neurobiology of thermosensation. In addition to talking about her intriguing work, we spoke at length about her children’s book series, The Magnificent Makers, which is described as the Magic School Bus for chapter book readers. As Dr Griffith continues to lead her lab at UC Davis and write upcoming installments of The Magnificent Makers, she is also co-writing the non-fiction companion book to the wildly successful Ada Twist, Scientist Netflix series. It’s impossible not to marvel at the artful way she combines her love for science and storytelling, which is nothing short of magnificent. As such, I couldn’t think of a better title for this episode other than ‘The Magnificent Dr Griffith’.
The transcript of our conversation has been prepared for accessibility purposes, with minor edits for clarity and brevity.
Dr Theanne Griffith: Being able to show Black and Brown kids having the answers, or figuring out the answers, and being the smart ones in the room—I think it's just so powerful. And I think had I had that kind of representation in media growing up, I wouldn't have doubted that I could get here.
Her Royal Science jingle
Dr Asma Bashir: Hello world, and welcome to Her Royal Science. Thank you so much for joining us for our very first episode of Season III. Today, we'll be chatting with Dr Theanne Griffith, an assistant professor in the Department of Physiology and Membrane Biology at the University of California, Davis. She previously completed her Bachelor of Arts in Neuroscience and Spanish at Smith College, followed by her PhD in Neuroscience at Northwestern University. I am over the moon to chat with Dr Griffith today about her work, which includes her ongoing research on the neurobiology of thermosensation at UC Davis, and her spectacular chapter book series, The Magnificent Makers. Be sure to pick up the latest installment in the series, The Great Germ Hunt, released just earlier this month. And mark your calendars for February 21st, 2022, when Race through Space becomes available. But let's start from the very beginning—Dr Griffith, what's your story?
TG: Well, I'm originally from Alexandria, Virginia, and I've really bounced around a lot since then. I've lived in Massachusetts—where I went to Smith College—Chicago, I even did a little bit of a stint in South America for a while, in Chile. So, I've kind of very much hopped all over the place, but one thing that has been consistent in my story, <laugh> not my geographic location <laugh>, is my love for science and my love for storytelling. So, I've always very much been a science kid, very curious as to how the world around me works.
My dad lived in rural Pennsylvania, so when I would visit him during the summers, I would spend a lot of time outdoors, looking at tadpoles and wondering about them, and why they went from fish to frogs in my child mind. But I also was very much a reader and a writer, and immersed myself in stories. I'm an only child, so I spent a lot of time in my own head and telling myself different stories. And I think for a long time, those two passions ran kind of parallel, but separate, in my life. For the most part, my career trajectory focused on science. I was first introduced to the field of neuroscience as a junior in high school where I took an AP Biology course. We did a three-week unit on neuroscience, and my mind was just kind of blown <laugh>. I learned about the sodium-potassium pump, and action potentials, and how neurons communicate with each other. And I was just like, ‘whoa, this is hard, but super cool!’
I chose Smith College to do my undergraduate work because they had a very dedicated neuroscience program and a lot of research opportunities, and I was fortunate enough to be able to do research all four years while I was there. But I always very much had that desire to write, and had that creative storytelling side in me. As I moved on in my scientific career in grad school, [I] kind of thought, ‘oh, maybe I can find time to pursue this.’ I did a little bit of work towards that, but as all the grad students who are listening to this know <laugh> grad school is challenging in and of itself. It's just a very difficult and transformative time, even when you have the most supportive of mentors and the most supportive of environment, which I found myself in that kind of situation, but I still didn't have the bandwidth to pursue it.
But then, when I went to go pursue my postdoc at Columbia University with Dr Ellen Lumpkin, I had my first daughter, and I was reading a lot of these children's books and picture books [to her]. And I thought, ‘you know what, Theanne? You can do this too. You've always wanted to do this.’ I've always specifically wanted to write for children too. I think children's imagination is just the most glorious thing ever. And creative writing that taps into that is just right up my alley, and is really what I wanted to do, and I wanted to combine it finally with science. I wanted to write a fiction series that was very much science-based and STEM-themed.
I did a lot of due diligence and research on my end to figure out how to break into the publishing industry, and if I told you all of those details, we'd be here for like three hours <laugh>. To make a long story short—I made a website. I changed my Twitter bio to say that I was a children's book writer, because I was told that if you write, then you are a writer, and Lord knows I was writing a lot, so I considered myself a writer, albeit not published. I participated in some various Twitter contests, and by doing so I caught the eye of an editor at Random House and she cold-emailed me and asked me if I wanted to give my hand at writing a science-themed chapter book series for kids and that she was really interested in having a scientist do that. And although she didn't say this, I have a feeling that she wanted to have a diverse perspective on science, not just what we've already seen <laugh> for the past, however many years, you know? And so again, to make another pretty long story short, after some back and forth, The Magnificent Makers were born. And here I am about almost two years later, actually two and a half years later, from that initial cold-email.
AB: How long have you been a published author then? I feel like I've known about you as long as I've been on Twitter!
TG: <Laugh> The books were published in May 2020, books one and two, and then book three came out in September 2020 as well. And then it was another year before the fourth installation came out.
AB: First of all, congratulations on all of your success! I do have a question that popped into my mind as you were speaking. Has there ever been a time where someone, perhaps someone more senior than you, criticizes you for having so much going on, having your book series and also running your own lab? The reason why I'm asking this question is because as a graduate student, I started participating in the world of spoken word, and though I did it on the side, I kept it a secret for a long time because I recognised how much contempt there was in academia for having outside interests. Has that been the case for you too?
TG: I would say that largely, no, not at all. I think that that is in part because I did it a little bit secretly until it was already done. And then once it was done and people saw that it was getting some success, I think there's nothing to be said, <laugh> right? Like what are you going to say? I'm out here selling books like I said I was going to!
I think when I was a postdoc, I was more nervous. I would say the more junior you are in your career, I think that those concerns, even coming from mentors, could potentially be more valid, only because as I mentioned, grad school's this transformative time and you're already just taking on so much, and it's not even about time, it’s about where you are mentally. I found personally that I, as a grad student, wasn't in the mental space, you know? I was, as a postdoc, and I was a little bit more scientifically mature so I could move my research forward while also moving this other side project forward, and not having the two interfere with each other.
Timing is so important, and I think I pursued this at the right time. That being said, I definitely did it, not ‘in secret’, but I wasn't talking about my journey as I was on it. I started talking about it once the journey kind of became clear that it was going somewhere, you know? Once I already had contracts and started publishing the books. I'm sure that if the books flopped, then people would be like, ‘well, you probably shouldn't have taken on so much!’ but what can you say when that's not happening?
I will say that it's challenging, and I encourage everybody including yourself to take care because I got to a point a little bit earlier in the year where I was really breaking down. Starting a new lab is not trivial. It's like starting a new business. It's hard, and there's no way to not make it hard or stressful. It just is. And I was taking on a lot. I was having trouble saying no, and so it definitely became a little bit much. But then, I just pulled back on some things, you know what I mean? And [I] took some things off of my plate. But I absolutely love writing these books. Every time I realize, ‘oh, it's time to start a new draft,’ I get excited! I get a little bit nervous and anxious <laugh> because I'm like, ‘oh gosh, is this going to be good? Am I going to be able to do this again for the sixth or seventh time?’ <laugh> But, I love it once I start writing, I love getting lost in that world. And it's a little bit of an escape, you know? And so again, kind of circling back to your question—no, I actually get a lot of encouragement, and I think that's because they ended up being successful. And so, if you find yourself not necessarily getting that encouragement, don't worry about it. Just do what you have to do as long as you're getting benefit—and I don't mean benefit necessarily monetarily, or anything like that—if you're getting emotional benefit or creative release benefit, then keep going, I would say.
AB: Mm-hmm <affirmative>. I was listening to a recent interview that you did with NPR, and you said something that really struck me in my heart. You said that the series is ‘a love letter to all the kids who didn't necessarily see themselves in science roles when they were growing up.’ And so, that kind of speaks to the power of self-imagery and being able to see yourself in these really amazing roles. Was there a moment where you realized how much power there was in representation?
TG: I don't know if there was a moment where... I mean, yes, there was. There was definitely a moment, but interestingly enough, it wasn't just tied to these books. I think writing the books helped me realize it, but it wasn't writing the books that made me realize it, if that makes sense. So, what made me realize how important representation was by the time I finally crawled my way up the academic ladder—I'm a tenure-track assistant professor, and this is what I really always wanted to do—for the longest time I doubted that I could. And the reason I want to highlight this is that both of my parents were professors. You know what I mean? I come from an academic background. Yes, they were first-generation. Yes, they came from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, but I didn't. I grew up in faculty meetings. My mom was a department chair, as was my dad. I knew the academic world, you know? Yet nonetheless, I still wasn't sure if I could do this, I still wasn't sure whether or not someone like me could, which is again, thinking back, just kind of nuts. <laugh> I should have. I should have known that I could do it.
Neither of my parents were in the sciences. My mom was a sociologist, my dad and economist, but I should have still known. And I think a lot of that was because I didn't see hardly anyone who looked like me doing it; I literally had so few examples. And so, it made me realize how much that lack of representation, even from childhood affected me.
Right now, for example, I watch a show, I won't name it, but I watch a show with my kids that I really don't like <laugh>, but they do, so I just suck it up. On the show, [when a] question comes up, there's always one little boy who knows the answer. And as you can guess, he is a very nerdy white little boy, and it's kind of reinforcing that stereotype of who is a know-it-all, and who is smart. All the questions are usually kind of fact-based, not necessarily just science, but kind of science-y, you know what I mean? The fact that it's always shown to be usually little white boys that always have the answer, that message really gets to you and in ways that are so subconscious, so now, being able to show Black and Brown kids having the answers, or figuring out the answers, and being the smart ones in the room, I think it's just so powerful.
I think had I had that kind of representation in media growing up, I wouldn't have doubted that I could get here. I should never have doubted that I could get here. I had all of the tools. I basically had a red carpet, right? Like, how much more preparation does one need besides having two academic parents? <laugh> And I don't say that to sound elitist or anything. I say it to highlight the impact of lack of representation on our psyche and how strong it really is. And I didn't even realize it until I got here, you know? So literally, like a year ago. It took that long. This imagery is so important.
I'm also involved with the Ada Twist, Scientist Netflix series. I'm co-writing the non-fiction companion book to that. And just seeing my daughters watch a little Black girl be a scientist on TV and have them fight—because of course they have to fight over something—over who's going to be the scientist, and have my oldest daughter ask me, ‘Mommy, can boys be scientists too?’ <laugh> All of those things are just wonderful; they make me so emotional, and I get so happy because I just didn't have that, you know? And we're talking about in the nineties, I grew up in the nineties. We're not talking about the sixties. It matters. It really, really matters.
AB: It matters so, so much. I can't say this enough, I love that you've written these books and will continue to write them. And congratulations on Ada Twist as well! That's amazing! Absolutely extraordinary. I realise that we've talked so much about your writing; we actually haven't spoken about your research, which is also phenomenal. Let's talk about that a little bit. What's your research like, and tell me what techniques you use, because our audience I'm sure would love to hear about that as well.
TG: So, I'm a neuroscientist by training. I did my undergrad in Neuroscience, I did my doctorate in Neuroscience, and I've always kind of had this theme of ion channels. As an undergrad, I studied human GABA A receptors and their modulation by compounds that are mimetics of anesthetics. As a grad student, I went on to study glutamate receptors and how they're modulated by auxiliary proteins using patch-clamp electrophysiology. And I fell in love with electrophysiology because electrophysiology is great for people who are kind of impatient scientists. <laugh> You get very instant gratification or very instant frustration, depending on the day. But I really fell in love with this field of ion channels and electrophysiology, and I wanted to apply my knowledge of ion channel function and biophysics to more of a physiological setting. And I was really drawn to somatosensation because I felt that I was studying something that was , no pun intended, tangible, right? Like, you know what temperature feels like and you know what a touch sensation feels like. While I was studying glutamate receptors, a lot of the field was involved in learning and memory, which is also cool and very fascinating, but somehow it was almost too abstract for me. I'm a very simple scientist <laugh> I like to kind of wrap my mind around things that I can feel. And so, what better place to do that than the somatosensory system?
I began working, as I said, with Ellen Lumpkin at Columbia University where she was studying touch. But again, I'll make a long story a little bit short. I ended up working on a side project that was actually more related to thermosensation, and I'm not sure how I got here, but I ended up investigating voltage-gated sodium channels. That was something that I had never done and Ellen hadn't done, but I'm not really too scared of a challenge, and so I kind of immersed myself in this world of a new ion channel family and began studying how voltage-gated sodium channels can regulate the excitability and actual potential firing of different populations of somatosensory neurons, with a focus on cold sensing neurons.
In my lab now, we basically use that same approach. We use conditional knockout animals, transgenic reporter lines, patch-clamp electrophysiology, mouse behavior, immunohistochemistry, RNAscope, a very combinatorial approach to tackle our questions from various angles. And we're just basically interested in how our peripheral nervous system transmits thermal signals in both health and disease. We know sensory neurons can transduce a lot of stimuli. The Nobel Prize recently went to the identification of transduction channels, like our TRP channels and our piezo channels, but I was more interested in how those signals were then sent, right? What were the transmission machinery? What were the voltage-gated ion channels that were sending those signals? How might modulatory receptors modulate the transmission of those signals? And in disease states, how are those signals aberrantly sent? Are the same pathways hijacked or new pathways activated? And so, these are some of the questions that we're asking the lab. And again, now we have a focus on voltage-gated sodium channels, but knowing me, I'm sure I'll jump to a new channel in no time <laugh>. I've already made my way through GABA and glutamate <laugh>, so who knows which one will be next.
AB: And specifically, disease-wise, are there certain diseases you're interested in? Are you using specific disease models? I assume you're using mouse models, correct?
TG: So, we're largely, right now, interested in pain and different forms of pain. So, there is neuropathic pain, which is results from damage to the nervous system, and we specifically use a chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy model. There are several chemotherapy drugs, most of them actually will eventually result in neuropathic pain and peripheral neuropathy, and a huge area of investigation is trying to solve that because it presents a problem. The pain becomes so bad that patients no longer want to take the drugs that are trying to save their lives, so we're very much interested in chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy, but as well as other various pain models like chronic constriction injury, for example. It's something that we're also establishing in the lab at the moment. And I'm sure we'll expand to others as time goes on.
Something that I would love to do in the long term—it's a little bit more challenging, I think, to do it well—is investigate sickle cell pain. I'm sure our listeners are familiar with sickle cell. It's a disease where your red blood cells are misshapen and causes a plethora of problems, but one of them that I think is often not discussed as much is the pain that comes with sickle cell disease. And interestingly enough, often these pain crises can be brought upon by cold temperatures. And so, I'm very curious as to the intersection of cold and pain signaling in the context of sickle cell disease, and being a Black woman, studying a disease that primarily affects Black and Brown people, that would feel very rewarding for me. So, that's definitely something that I have my eye on in the horizon, but for now I'm just kind of working on getting more slightly more straightforward questions established and techniques established in the lab.
AB: Mm-hmm <affirmative>, which makes a lot of sense. I can't wait to see what comes out of your lab. I do like ending our episodes with words of wisdom. You said earlier in the episode that you've made your way up this academic ladder, so there's so many lessons that you've learned along the way. I can't ask you for all of them, even though I'd love to, but if you could just say one thing, one phrase, one sentence, to the 20-year-old version of you, who I assume was probably finishing undergrad or in the middle of undergrad, what would you say to her?
TG: Oh, that's a good one. You know, I think the thing that I would most want young me to know is don't take silence or no for an answer. If it's really standing in the way of what you want to achieve, no one can stop you and—oh gosh, this sounds so cliché, so pardon me <laugh>, but it's true—when you set your eye on something, it’s just about getting there, and maybe getting there is not linear. Maybe it's not fast, but there is a path, and you just have to figure out the path. That pretty much goes for anything in life. If you see something, you just have to figure out how to get there. It may be hard, and it may be long, but if you really want to get there, you can, you just have to figure out how the system works.
AB: That's a beautiful end to this episode. Again, thank you so much for having this conversation with me. Be sure to pick up all of The Magnificent Makers series. Get it for those that you love. Get it for yourself, even if you're a little bit older. They're glorious books. And be sure to be on the lookout for all the books that come out in the future from Dr Theanne Griffith. And watch Ada Twist, Scientist on Netflix!
AB: Thank you so much, Dr Griffith.
TG: Thank you so very much. It's been a pleasure speaking with you.