If there was one thing that Dr. Heather Thompson ’96 learned from her Doane education — and she learned a lot as a Fulbright scholar and chemistry major with a minor in German — it was that you can’t know until you try.
Like how, if she hadn’t taken a fiction class as one of her liberal arts electives, she may not have tried writing poetry. Or how, if she hadn’t taken a German class for foreign language, she may not have traveled abroad.
“Taking something that was completely outside my major allowed me to find an interest that I didn’t know I had,” Thompson said, interests that not only influenced her career path, but enriched it.
And somewhere along the way, these interests became a passion — for writing children’s books.
“If the World Were Made of Chocolate”
She says that passion began in 2009, while she was employed at the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) in Alexandria, Virginia, a nonprofit that works exclusively with U.S. government agencies to provide objective analysis for security and science policy questions. The institute encouraged employees to tutor and mentor students in public schools, and Thompson signed up to help through the Alexandria Tutoring Consortium. She was matched with a first grade student struggling with reading.
“I went over to a local elementary school and was tutoring a little boy. He really loved chocolate, but I couldn’t find a book at his reading level that had chocolate as a theme,” Thompson said.
So she made him one.
“Especially for kids who struggle in reading, I want them to have something entertaining and engaging, rather than something frustrating,” she said. “They would open up their books and you could see them struggling. And then it becomes a chore for them, rather than something they see as fun.”
There weren’t as many options for self-publishing in 2009, so she made the book in Microsoft PowerPoint. She titled it, “If the World Were Made of Chocolate.” Her student ate it up.
“If the World Were Made of Chocolate!” was re-released in August with revised text and illustrations, and is available for purchase through many online book retailers, with a dedication to the student she once tutored. It’s her fourth self-published book, with a fifth just added to Amazon for pre-ordering.
Following a passion
It’s only recently that Thompson jumped headlong into publishing. Like many, she found herself contemplating her work and career during the long months of quarantine in 2020. She was living with her sister on Bainbridge Island, in Washington, and working for Brown University as a research development and support specialist.
The position had actually been remote since 2015. She helped write and proofread grants and research papers, and design figures for journal articles.
“So, spring 2021, I thought ‘you know, I’m just going to resign from this and try something, try to do my own thing,’” she said.
Her first stop — scooping up ice cream at a nearby shop for the summer and fall. That job ended up as the inspiration for her first self-published book in more than a decade, “Oops, Too Many Scoops!” The book was created to teach numbers and colors, adding 10 scoops of ice cream to a cone one-by-one, and then sharing the colors of each scoop of ice cream after they topple over.
Although she hadn’t published a new book until 2022, Thompson had continued to write drafts about her sister’s dog for fun. This exercise eventually turned into her second book, titled “Miss P, a Pup with a P,” which teaches the letter “P.” The letter was also featured in her character design.
Thompson ran the book by her cousin, who teaches at an elementary school, to see if it was something she would find useful for class. It was timed perfectly — her cousin’s students were working on learning the alphabet. But they were having trouble understanding the differences between some of the letters.
“She said, ‘my kids struggle with lowercase b and lowercase d,’ and asked if I could create characters to help them recognize the letters,” Thompson said.
Which led to her third book, “Little ‘b’ Makes a Bunny, Little ‘d’ Makes a Ducky.” The book walks readers through how to write “b” and “d”, along with words that begin with the two letters with the help of the titular animal friends.
Thompson’s fifth book, “I Want a Tail, Too!” was also influenced by her life. A few years back, she had a conversation with one of her colleagues about how his child wanted a Halloween costume with a tail, which sparked an idea for a book about the different types of tails animals have and how they use them.
Doane education influential throughout career
Thompson said she pulls more than you might expect from her STEM education and experience to create her books.
“I did a lot of microscopy, which is pretty much images,” she said, throughout her career in cell biology. “And so I really like being able to see bright, cartoony, fun images to help share an idea. I think that’s partly where the idea for children’s books and using basic graphic illustrations comes from.”
In addition to the creative aspects of writing, making graphics, and choosing fonts and colors, publishing has a lot of technical aspects, especially for self-publishing. You need to have precise margins and know how much bleed is needed so images aren’t cut off in binding or on the edge of a page, for example. Her work at Brown gave her experience with layout design and working with Adobe Illustrator, which helped her create templates for her books that work with her publishing platform, IngramSpark.
The courses Thompson took outside of her chemistry major also contributed to giving her the courage to not only change careers, but make an investment in herself.
“I took all the German classes, with Professor Erika Barton and the upper level ones with Professor Peter Reinkordt, who has been a huge influence in my life,” she said. “He encouraged me to go to Germany and take language classes, and then to apply for a Fulbright.”
As a first-year student, Thompson had initially seen taking a foreign language class as checking off a box to graduation. But she found she liked it, and was good at it. And several classes later, Reinkordt told her, ‘okay, you’re flying to Germany.’
“I don’t even know if I’d been outside of Nebraska,” Thompson said. “He sat me down and took me through it — I was literally writing on a notepad ‘exchange money for German marks, get a passport, get on a plane.’”
Reinkordt even visited her family in Sutherland, Nebraska to talk to them about her language classes and what traveling in Germany would look like for her. That trip, the summer between Thompson’s sophomore and junior years, was just the start for her.
After graduation, she spent a year in Marburg, Germany for her Fulbright, conducting research at a Max Planck Institute. Twenty-five years later, she is still in contact with the host family she stayed with.
Thompson returned to the U.S. to complete her doctorate, at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, then went back to Germany for a two-year postdoc at a different Max Planck Institute in Dresden. She returned to the Mayo Clinic after her postdoc, before joining the IDA and later, Brown.
“And now we’ve come full circle to resigning and being like, ‘okay, we’re going to try to write, and if you want to do it, you better jump in and do it,’” Thompson said. “I think it all comes back to the caring environment at Doane, the encouragement to test out interests that allows you to access an interest you never knew you had.”
There was one more thing Thompson remembered while talking about her Doane experience. During one of her upper level German classes, students were asked to create an essay or a story, about der Alptraum — a nightmare. She printed her copy, cut-and-pasted it into a book, and drew illustrations with crayons.
“Oh, I guess I did kind of like writing kid’s books even back then,” she said.