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Loree Griffin Burns is Answering ‘100 Million Questions,’ One Book at a Time

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Loree Griffin Burns. Credit: Ellen Harasimowicz

Loree Griffin Burns starts most mornings with a haiku. Reading or crafting the three-line poems with just 17 syllables verges on spiritual practice for the biochemist-turned-author.

“It forces me to sit down, be quiet and think about how to describe a single moment in very spare, but completely accurate language, in a way that feels poetic,” she said. “It sets the tone for my real job, which is doing that same thing in a longer form.”

Burns writes science books for children. Award-winning titles include: Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam and the Science of Ocean Motion; The Hive Detectives: Chronicle of a Honey Bee Catastrophe; and Citizen Scientists: Be a Part of Scientific Discovery from Your Own Backyard.

While marketed to younger audiences, make no mistake — Burns’ books are not just for kids. The deeply reported, meaty texts contain plenty to surprise and educate readers of all ages, particularly those new to the topics.

Take her latest book due out in November. Life on Surtsey features scientists studying the development of a new Icelandic island that formed after a volcanic eruption in 1963. Since its inception, Surtsey has been closed to visitors except researchers. Burns accompanied nine scientists there for a week to learn “how life comes to an island for the first time.” Among the characters is an entomologist who first visited the island when he was 20 years old and is now well into his 60s. He shared how he has watched the lump of lava turn into a dynamic environment with lush meadows full of insect life.

“Being on one of the newest pieces of earth on Earth and hearing a firsthand account about how it formed and changed was fascinating,” Burns said.

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Loree Griffin Burns in Iceland
Biochemist-turned-author Loree Griffin Burns is one of the few people to have stepped foot on Surtsey, an Icelandic island formed in 1963 that has been closed to all except researchers. Her latest "Scientists in the Field" book Life on Surtsey will come out November 14, 2017. | Credit: Erling Olafsson

Authoring books is not what the Massachusetts native envisioned as her career. An avid reader all through her childhood, she fell in love with horses through novels such as The Black Stallion. She was set on becoming a jockey or veterinarian, until her freshman biology teacher introduced her to the scientific method and encouraged her to design original research projects.

“Mr. Micarelli showed us that no matter how old we were or where we were, we could do science,” she said.

For one of her first experiments, Burns investigated the soil substrate preferences of earth worms. Even though she could have easily looked it up in a book, she was addicted to this new way of looking at the world and finding the answer herself. From then on, she planned for a life in basic research.

Particularly entranced by how things work on the molecular level, she studied biology at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and investigated yeast gene regulation for her biochemistry PhD at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Upon finishing her thesis, she stepped back from the bench to start a family. Writing became a hobby fit around raising twin sons and a daughter. She never considered it as a career, until a particular story grabbed her attention. More than 28,000 floating bathtub toys had fallen into the Pacific Ocean in 1992, and a decade later were forecasted to wash ashore in New England that summer.

“I had a 100 million questions,” Burns said. “Whose job it was to track these tub toys and how were they tracking these tub toys? How did they know this was the summer they were going to arrive?”

She thought the bath toys would be the perfect way to teach kids about ocean currents. A friend encouraged her to write the story for children, and in 2007, her first book Tracking Trash was published as part of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s  “Scientists in the Field” series.

Burns continues to pick subjects that she finds fascinating and doesn’t know much about. She revels in the freedom to study many subjects — a dramatic departure from the narrow focus of basic research.

“I get to spend a few years thinking deeply about honey bees and their biology, how they work and what might be going wrong for them in this world; but the next year, I am on an island in Iceland thinking about how different environments form,” she said. 

With all her books, Burns aims to share what she learned while seeking answers to her 100 million questions. She meets readers where they are, builds scientific knowledge, and ideally leaves them excited to ask more questions. “My hope is that the books are a launching pad for their own exploration or research,” she said.

Her work has received numerous accolades, including American Library Association Notable Book designations, a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Book Award, an International Reading Association Children’s Book Award, and two AAAS Science Books & Films prizes.

Even with such glowing recognition, Burns admits it took a while for her to accept her nontraditional science career.

“There was a time early on where I struggled with whether this was a legitimate career for someone who has worked so hard to obtain a PhD,” she said. “I’ve let go of that now because I love what I do and I feel like what I am doing is valuable.”

She encouraged other scientists to not be afraid of pursuing science away from the bench if their passions lead them elsewhere. The career will come. 

 

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<p>Loree Griffin Burns. Credit: Ellen Harasimowicz</p>
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