From high school nerd to neuroscientist

Neuroscientist Teagan Wall, who also an accomplished dancer, writes for Netflix’s Bill Nye Saves the World. 

Editor’s note: Mary Wall, owner of Tempe-based Wall2Wall Dance Center and a business owner with whom we’ve had a long and very enjoyable connection, mentioned that we might be interested in writing about her daughter, a classic “local girl who made good.” The suggestion proved to be a good one, causing correspondent Mark Moorhead to describe his interview with Teagan Wall as one of his most memorable. When you finish reading Moorhead’s piece, we think you’ll feel the same way.

By M.V. Moorhead

A true “Renaissance woman” doesn’t come along every day, but Teagan Wall can lay some claim to the title.

The McClintock High School graduate earned a B.A. in Political Science and Economics and a B.S. in Math from the University of Arizona in 2010, following it up with a Masters in Behavioral Neuroscience and a Ph.D. in Computational and Neural Systems from Cal Tech.

She’s now on the Emmy-nominated writing staff for the Netflix show Bill Nye Saves the World. She’s also an accomplished dancer, and she crochets.

Wrangler News had the chance to chat with Dr. Wall recently:

Wrangler News: Your studies at seem to have been very diverse. Was there a specific career you were planning for, or were you just studying things that interested you?

Teagan Wall: I think I kept possible career options in the back of my mind, but I was never marching toward a specific career or goal in that sense. I’ve always been fascinated by why people (myself included) make choices that are bad for them, and they sound very different, but in that sense Economics, Political Science, and Neuroscience all overlap.

WN: It says on your website that your primary focus of your work is “decision neuroscience.” Can you explain something about that?

TW: Like all fields, “neuroscience” is deceptively broad. If you’re a neuroscientist you study the brain. “Decision Neuroscience” gives you a little more information. It means I’m primarily interested in behavior, and the things that can impact that. So why do people start smoking even though they know it’s a terrible life choice, and how can we understand what’s actually happening in the brain to help them quit? That sort of thing.

WN: You describe yourself as a “science communicator.” What would you most urgently want to communicate to laypeople about science right now?

TW: I love this question! I wish more “lay people” understood that science is just a process that we use to try and be wrong less often. At some point, someone figured out that being wrong sucks, and it sucks so much that we, as humans, actively try to avoid even admitting that we might be wrong. Doing “science” just means that when you think you know how something works, you look at all your assumptions, and you design a test to try and prove yourself wrong. Once you’ve tried everything you can, if you haven’t been able to prove yourself wrong then you write it down. And then your friends, peers, other scientists all try and prove you wrong, and if they fail, then we’re pretty sure you’re right and you get published. This is a really uncomfortable thing for a lot of people. And because people don’t understand this, they don’t understand the difference between scientific uncertainty and actual uncertainty. They don’t understand why scientists say coffee helps prevent cancer one month, and causes it the next. And they think of scientists as these weird, cold, out-of-touch people who don’t understand why non-scientists don’t like being corrected when they express false beliefs. I think helping non-scientists understand how scientists approach problems, and why, is the most important thing I can communicate right now.

WN: You’re a founding member of the “Nerd Brigade.” Can you tell us about some of the work you do there?

TW: The Nerd Brigade is a collection of scientists and science communicators who are all working to promote science literacy and interest. That means that most of the work I do with the Brigade is just talking to lay people at various events. We’ve done talks at museums, co-working spaces, music festivals, street fairs, and more. For the Brigade, it’s about making science cool, making scientists more visible and approachable, and bringing science to unexpected places.

WN: It’s clear you’re also a pretty serious dancer and performer. Where and from who did you get your training in that area? Do you still dance?

TW: I was a pretty serious dancer growing up, yes. I started taking classes at Marilyn Bostic’s Ballet studio when I was 3 and continued until I went away to college. In LA I try to take classes at Lineage Dance and Edge Performing Arts Center, when I can. For me, dance is just a part of who I am. When I’m stressed or anxious or sad, the studio is centering. No matter what’s going on in my life, or my writing, or my science, I can walk into a studio and feel calm and at home. I never feel like myself more than when I’m dancing.

WN: You also crochet! How and where did you pick up that skill?

TW: My grandmother tried to teach me when I was very young, and I wasn’t very good. In 2011, right after I came to grad school, I decided to try and learn, thinking it would just be a fun mental exercise. But now I’m hooked! Get it?! Sorry. I just really enjoy designing these things and then watching them come to life. It still blows my mind that I can start with a bunch of yarn, tie 40,000 knots in it, and end up with something creative and new and, honestly, cuddly. It’s the original 3D printing!

WN: Obligatory celebrity question: What’s it like working for Bill Nye?

TW: I love this question because the answer always makes everyone so happy. Bill Nye is EXACTLY the person you think he is. He’s nice, energetic, compassionate. He really just loves teaching people about how the universe works! He knows at least something about everything, so he’s really easy to talk to, and he’s just fun! He’s a wonderful boss, a wonderful host, and just an all-around great guy. There’s a saying “Don’t meet your heroes,” but Bill’s the exception. Meet Bill.



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