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Biophysicist in Profile

Theanne Griffith

Theanne Griffith

May 2022 // 2800

Theanne Griffith grew up in Alexandria, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, DC. Her parents were both first-generation ac­ademics. “My mother was a professor of sociology at Buck­nell University and later went on to become the Chair of the Women’s Studies Department at Towson University and the director of their Institute for Teaching and Research on Wom­en,” she shares. “My father was a professor of economics at Bucknell University, with a focus on economic development in the Caribbean. He also founded and directed the Bucknell in Barbados Summer Study Program.”

Griffith is the first in her family to pursue a career in scientific research. She loved science from the time she was a little girl, and began considering it as a career in high school after an advanced placement biology class introduced her to the field of neuroscience. She went on to major in neuroscience and Spanish at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, graduating in 2008. “My interest in biophysics was piqued as an undergraduate researcher at Smith College, were I stud­ied modulation of human GABA(A) receptors,” she says. “As a graduate student at Northwestern University, this interest was solidified, as I continued studying ion channels. This time, my focus was on ionotropic glutamate receptors and their regulation by auxiliary subunits. I was hooked and there was no looking back!”

She received her doctorate in neuroscience at Northwestern University in 2015, and then began postdoctoral research with Ellen A. Lumpkin at Columbia University. “There, I har­nessed my knowledge of ion channel biophysics to investi­gate the role of voltage-gated sodium channels in somato­sensory transmission,” Griffith explains. “I made the surprising discovery that Nav1.1 is a critical determinant of excitability in a subset of cold-sensing peripheral sensory neurons, which I found to be due in part to the unique slow inactivation kinet­ics of these native channels.”

Griffith is currently an Assistant Professor in the Depart­ment of Physiology and Membrane Biology at the University of California, Davis. “The overall goal of the Griffith lab is to define the specialized roles for ion channels in somatosentory transmission and behavior. Continuing with the work I did as a postdoc, we are currently investigating new roles for Nav1.1 in various somatosensory modalities,” she related. “Nav1.1 is primarily studied in the central nervous system, where it con­tributes to repetitive firing in GABAergic interneurons, leaving its role in the peripheral nervous system underexplored. We are studying the role of this channel in various somatosen­sory modalities, including thermosensation, pain, and pro­prioception, using techniques that range from biophysics to behavior. As we are very interested in native ion channel func­tion, additional research directions include defining the unique molecular composition of ion channel complexes in distinct neuronal subpopulations, with the goal of understanding how native channels may be modulated or tuned in a cell-type– specific manner.”

The biggest challenge she has faced in her career was also a personal one. “My mother was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer the day before my orientation to my gradu­ate program and died three years later. I was only 27 when she passed, and it was an extremely challenging time, as grad school is tough under the best circumstances. I had a supportive mentor who was very understanding, as well as awesome and supportive colleagues. Nevertheless, that experience shaped me in many important ways. It showed me the very real need and the importance of spending time with loved ones,” Griffith shares. “As a mother now myself, I strive to not let work interfere with the time I spend with my family. I’m not always successful, but I am proud of the progress I’ve made while maintaining healthy work boundaries. It has made me really focus on being organized and efficient with my time, and protective of it. In my first year as an Assistant Professor, I’ve learned the importance of saying ‘no.’ It’s tough to inter­nalize, especially as a Black woman. If I could hazard a guess, the one space in science in which we are overrepresented is the ‘Can you do this for me?’ category.”

Griffith describes her favorite part of working under the biophysics umbrella: “I really love ion channels and understanding how they are uniquely tuned to achieve their physiological role. I also love the biophysics community!

My work is definitely on the edge of what one might consid­er ‘biophysics.’ We don’t study channel function per se, but instead how channel function influences neuronal physiology and behavior. But I have truly fallen in love with the biophysics community, as I find it incredibly supportive and welcoming. Gathering with colleagues at the Annual Meeting is definitely a highlight of my year.”

She explains further: “Being a part of the Society has intro­duced me to researchers and research that have changed the way I approach science. I am a neuroscientist by training, but the connections I have made with the biophysics community has given my research a special twist, allowing me to ask questions that span ion channel biophysics to mammalian behavior.”

The most rewarding aspects of her work are fostering the next generation of researchers and the excitement of discov­ery. “I absolutely love to witness the growth in my trainees. If I wasn’t a scientist, I’d be a teacher, as I love training and mentoring the future generation of scientists,” Griffith says. “A close second would be contributing to knowledge. I love getting results that no one has reported before, and really being at the forefront of scientific investigation. That was a big driver in my deciding to pursue a career at an academic R1 institution.”

When she’s not working in her lab, Griffith spends time writ­ing children’s literature focused on STEM. “I am the author of the science adventure series The Magnificent Makers (Random House Children’s Books) and co-writer on the nonfiction series Ada Twist, Scientist: The Why Files (Abrams),” she reveals. “I also enjoy doing yoga, tending to my garden and house plants, and spending time outside with my family.”

She also volunteers as a member of the Biophysical Society’s Committee for Inclusion and Diversity, and conceived of and organized the recent Justice for Underrepresented Scholars Training in Biophysics (JUST-B) Poster Session at the An­nual Meeting. “The inaugural JUST-B Poster Session was a huge success. Nearly 50 underrepresented trainees, from career stages spanning undergraduate researchers to senior scientists, presented their cutting-edge work,” she reports. “The session was attended by faculty, industry professionals, journal editors, and program officials from NIH. I couldn’t have hoped for a better turnout, which in my opinion shows just how needed this session was. I am thrilled to watch as this program evolves in the years to come.”

To those just starting out in biophysics, Griffith says, “Wel­come! The biophysics community is amazing. The field is rapidly evolving with the development of cutting-edge optical, imaging, structural, and functional techniques. There is so much room for growth. We are happy you are here.”

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