Teagan Wall (PhD '15) on Bill Nye and Scientific Storytelling
Out of the Lab, Into the Studio
Teagan Wall (PhD ’15) recalls watching Bill Nye the Science Guy on television as a child growing up in Tempe, Arizona, enthralled by the scientist’s fast-paced demonstrations. Fifteen years later, with a doctorate in computational and neural systems from Caltech in hand and a budding career as a science communicator, Wall had what she calls the “strange and exciting experience” of not only meeting Nye, but working as a writer on his new Netflix show, Bill Nye Saves the World, which began airing this spring.
Wall’s journey to the writer’s room has been circuitous. As an economics undergraduate at the University of Arizona, she became interested in the biological and physical questions explored by neuroeconomists, who study human decision making as part of a field Caltech helped to establish. She eventually found a niche in the Caltech lab of Henry Lester, Bren Professor of Biology, studying nicotine addiction.
It was through her participation in Caltech’s theater program, however, that Wall began to connect her passion for science with its performance aspect; in 2014, she and fellow alum Crystal Dilworth (PhD ’14) brought those worlds even closer by cofounding the Nerd Brigade, a group of LA-area science communicators who use the tools of “edutainment” to engage the public in scientific storytelling.
Since receiving her Caltech degree, Wall has appeared as an expert on the TV shows How to Build Everything and Xploration Fab Lab. Her work with Nye completed, she is currently writing for PBS’s BrainCraft, a video series on YouTube that aims to explain “psychology, neuroscience, and why we act the way we do.”
In a conversation she had with fellow alum Crystal Dilworth (PhD '14), Wall recently reflected on what she calls the “dream come true” of working with her scientific hero.
Crystal Dilworth: Who did you work with when you were at Caltech?
Teagan Wall: Henry Lester.
CD: What did you study?
TW: I studied the behavioral neural pharmacology of nicotine-like drugs. Basically, it means I gave drugs to mice that work on the same types of receptors in the brain as nicotine to find out both what different subtypes of receptors are responsible for it behaviorally and how we can target different subtypes of receptors for pharmacological benefits.
CD: What are the human applications of your research?
TW: The human applications are drug design for hopefully help people stop smoking and develop treatments for things like Parkinson's disease.
CD: Can you tell me a little bit about your journey through the Caltech divisions and how Caltech's flexibility helped you find your place?
TW: My undergraduate research [at the University of Arizona] was in economics. At the time, I was a very impoverished student and was participating in a lot of econ experiments to help support myself. I noticed that almost all of the data being published in economic journals was taken from 18- to 25-year-olds, and what little I knew at the time of neurodevelopment told me that this might not be the best group to base an entire field of research on. So, I wrote a grant proposal as an undergrad, just as a mental exercise, on looking at differences specifically in risk attitudes between undergraduate populations, graduate populations, and faculty populations within academia to determine if this was a good idea. I didn't actually end up submitting this grant anywhere, but the professor I was working with at the time was like, “You should really be looking at this new field that's coming into existence called neuroeconomics.” I went to the neuroeconomics conference that year and really found the biological and physiological look at economics very appealing.
CD: Was there a particular thing at that conference that made you think, “Wow, that's awesome”?
TW: I went to a talk that was my first experience with any type of dopamine-signaling research. This research looked at dopamine measures in monkeys. They had a task, and if they were successful, they received a reward; if they were unsuccessful, they were given feedback that they had failed. Being able to watch the dopamine levels spike or decrease and encode learning or reward or whatever you think it encodes, I was like, “Oh, my God, this is the foundation of everything economics does, and they don't even know this exists.”
CD: You found the control switch.
TW: I found the control switch. I decided I wanted to go into neuroeconomics, and I went and visited a bunch of schools before even applying just to find out where I thought I would find my niche. I walked into the third floor of Baxter, where there is a giant wall that says, “Neuroeconomics Lab,” and I was like, “OK, this is where I want to be.”
CD: Neuroeconomics lives here!
TW: Yeah. I applied to Caltech, and I started in neuroeconomics, which is part of the humanities and social sciences division. I was on that path, and then I took Henry Lester and Ralph Adolphs’s Bi 150 [course] and was like, “Wait, I could do even more biology?”
CD: If I remember correctly, you ended up TA-ing that class, didn't you?
TW: Yeah. I took it one year and then TA-ed it for the next three, I believe.
CD: Was that how you wound up in Lester's lab?
TW: Actually, when I was taking that class, he was talking about something, and I had recently read a paper on the effects of ketamine on medication-resistant depression. I emailed him later that day saying, “The information you gave in your lecture is dated. Check out this new research that's happening.” About three months later, my name was in the acknowledgments of a paper that he had published on inside-out theories of how antidepressants work. I am very prone to flattery and was like, “That's my name in a journal. Can I rotate into your lab, sir?” I rotated, and I had my own funding so I never left.
CD: How long did it take you to get your PhD once you joined Henry's lab?
TW: I joined Henry's lab in June of 2012. I defended in March of 2015.
CD: That seems pretty fast. Is that normal?
TW: That is not normal. There were a lot of things at play there. For starters, I discovered pretty quickly that I didn't want to go into academia, that the fight for funding that I was seeing everyone I look up to having to put up with was not something that I was going to be able to tolerate. My goal, pretty quickly, became just to get my PhD so that I could figure out what was next. It's much easier to get a PhD if you're not trying to advance in an academic career.
CD: But you didn't go straight into science communication. You kind of took a little detour and tried to go back to your roots for a second.
TW: Actually, I did sort of go straight into science communication. I was doing science communication work while I was still in grad school. You and I put together a group called The Nerd Brigade, composed of people who communicate about science in various ways. A dozen science communicators in L.A., plus a dozen outside of L.A., all sort of connected with this group. I was active in that. I was doing events. I was taking occasional work either as an expert on TV or podcasts or whatever, but I honestly didn't believe that I could make a career out of it. Academia does not have a monopoly on imposter syndrome. I really felt that it was something I enjoyed and something I wanted to keep doing but that I needed to have a day job in order to support myself so that I could do science communication on the side.
I had been very poor as an undergrad and decided that my day job should be both back to my economic and mathematical roots, and highly lucrative. So, I originally took a job at a global macro hedge fund, where I was working as a quant, which is a quantitative analyst.
CD: Isn’t there a Caltech connection there?
TW: There's a huge Caltech connection. This hedge fund is right up the street from Caltech, and I think half the people I worked with, more than half, were Caltech PhDs. When I interviewed, one of the partners at the firm asked me whose lab I was in, and I said Henry Lester's. It turns out that his wife had been an undergrad and postdoc in Henry's lab.
CD: I think that science communication is getting to be a little bit well known now as a career, but certainly it's not something that you hear about all the time when you're in the lab doing graduate experiments. How did you get exposed to the idea of going into communications?
TW: I think part of it was that I have a background in dance and theater. Caltech has a surprisingly robust and very supportive, very wonderful extracurricular theater program. As soon as it was made apparent that I had a background in those things, I was roped into helping out with that. There's something about performing—whether it's performing a musical or performing a dance piece or performing for your science in a way that's entertaining and informative—that all sort of ... it's a dopamine feedback loop. It's addictive. As soon as you start doing it, you want to do it more, and you want to find more outlets to really express yourself in a way that feels true.
CD: I think the Caltech theater program has been amazing training for a lot of science communicators. I mean, you mentioned The Nerd Brigade, the group that both of us are founding members of, but so is Meg Rosenburg who also got her PhD from Caltech. So is Holly Bender who works as an optical engineer at JPL. All of us can be said to have met through the theater program.
CD: What does being a science communicator mean? What type of work do you do?
TW: For me, that means a bunch of things. I have the opportunity to write for TV shows or YouTube channels or occasionally things like blogs about cool science that's happening. Or about more evergreen topics: helping people really understand how their brains work, helping people understand how the universe works, and how the world around them works—really getting people curious and excited about the science that's happening around them.
CD: How is that different from journalism?
TW: It tends to be very different. I actually think, for me, it's closer to teaching.
CD: We call it edutainment.
TW: Edutainment. Yeah. There are some science journalism aspects to it. That tends to be more true when you're working on science news stories, but for a lot of the topics … like, I actually just finished up writing a script for a video about circadian rhythm where it doesn't really talk about any new research, but it takes on something that most people don't even think about on a day-to-day basis, which is why they're tired when they're tired, why they're awake when they're awake, why playing on their phone until midnight disrupts their sleep schedule. It really gives them information about what's happening in their brain, what's happening hormonally, what cues are triggering these responses in a way that they wouldn't necessarily think about, and then that's sort of entertaining and fun as well.
CD: I know that you just finished working on a very exciting project for Netflix.
TW: Yes. It's Bill Nye Saves the World. It's a new show for Netflix that is a talk show/science show.
CD: What was that like for you, meeting Bill Nye? Did you watch Bill's show as a kid?
TW: His buoyancy episode is ... I remember it blowing my little kid mind that the weight of the water being displaced weighed the exact same amount as the boat. Looking at pictures of these giant ships and realizing how heavy water really must be to hold up this giant ... it made science so accessible and so fun. For me, that show was up there with Mr. Rogers as something that I don't think I'll ever outgrow, and I just love no matter what. So, meeting Bill was a strange and exciting experience.
CD: I know that before you were even in a lab you knew a lot about television, that you particularly love Aaron Sorkin's work, and that there's always been a certain attraction to working in a writer's room and being involved in the process in that way. Can you talk to me a little about what that was like to kind of live the dream?
TW: You know that meme with the internal screaming closed caption? That was basically what happened. It was a dream come true. Realizing that something that had really been a dream of mine for a very long time was something that I was not only capable of but actually good at and that people actually appreciated my work ... it was beyond anything I could have hoped for. It's like if someone asks you what your five-year plan is and then is like, “How about I just accelerate you to year seven?”
CD: What would you say to the grad students who we know are sitting in their labs at Caltech right now who have no idea what their life is going to be like afterwards?
TW: A few things. One is don't close off any options, even if you want to go into academia. The arts, writing, reading of nonscience material—they all make you a more well-rounded person so that when you get out of grad school, even if you want to stay in academia, they will make you a better academic. If you want to get out of academia, they will make the number of options available to you much, much higher. Read, write, participate, play an instrument or take a dance class or participate in theater or sing or ...
CD: Definitely participate in theater.
TW: Do something. ... Make sure it's outside of your comfort zone. Make sure you're learning things that you don't think you will ever use in your life, because at some point you're going to be at an interview, and you're going to think, “That reminds me of that one time I learned how to juggle chainsaws.”