Inventing a better world with author/engineer Arlyne Simon
Arylne Simon said she remembers the caterpillars she collected and kept in jars as a child. On the lush Caribbean island of Dominica, where she grew up, nature was everywhere.
While exploring, she'd collect the wormy bugs and then wait for the magical metamorphosis. It fascinated her, even when the insects never fluttered colorful wings.
"Sometimes, they'd turn into moths," Simon said, but the experience still had its purpose.
Simon, 34, now lives in Hillsboro, where she works as a biomedical engineer for an international tech company. She's a patent-owning inventor, engineer and, most recently, she's added the title of children's book author to her résumé.
"That's really where my curiosity started," she said. "I fell in love with biology because I loved that caterpillars could change into flying butterflies."
As a child, she was constantly satiating her need to explore the world around her. Now, as a scientist with a doctorate in macromolecular science and engineering, she's still not done exploring.
Simon moved to the United States when she was 17, to pursue higher education. Her family followed her.
"My dad is a very protective West Indian father, so we all moved because I had to go to college," she said.
At first, there was culture shock.
"We don't have trains (where I grew up). I had to take the train to school. My first day of school, my dad had to drop me off and show me what to do," she said. "Also moving to a country that is a more heterogeneous society," took some getting used to.
Her mother is a primary school teacher who quickly recognized her daughter's love of biology. Her father, a civil engineer, tried to stoke her interest in science, but the field didn't immediately win her over.
"I didn't want to wear yellow hard hats," Simon said. "I wanted to be fashionable. I struck out with engineering, because I thought that was the only way to be an engineer."
Simon soon found her footing. She said coming to the United States unearthed "a sea of opportunity," within the sciences and engineering. She ended up studying chemistry before making the switch to chemical engineering. Simon completed her graduate studies at the University of Michigan after doing her undergraduate work at Georgia Tech.
During the course of her graduate studies, she helped create and patent a blood test to detect when a cancer patient rejects a bone marrow transplant.
Now, she helps advise medical imaging companies about which computer hardware to use in their machines, to get a better view of the human body.
She's a highly educated woman who landed a good job, but she also knows there's a dearth of people in the engineering field who look like her. That's why she's made it her mission to help empower and spark interest in science, engineering, technology and math, often called STEM, among children, specifically young Black girls.
In 2018, she published her first book, "Abby Invents Unbreakable Crayons" about a young girl who grows tired of her crayons breaking, so she invents her own crayons.
On Feb. 1, the second book in the "Abby Invents" series, "Abby Invents the Foldibot," was released.
The book follows Abby's journey in working with her cousin, Miko, to engineer a device that can fold laundry.
Drawing from her own life, Simon said the children's book series also is about "the experience of wanting to normalize failure."
"In all my books, Abby fails many times," she said. "Her teacher tells her, 'remember you can't quit, you have to keep going, you can't give up.'"
Simon will be the first to say that failure is part of the journey to success.
The book initially was rejected by every publisher she pitched it to.
"When I got rejected by publishers, it didn't bother me too much because in grad school you publish things that get rejected many times," she said. "I felt very strongly that the words were important."
"The United States Patent Trademark Office somehow used it in their 10th Camp Invention program," Simon said. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology also included "Abby Invents Unbreakable Crayons" in its Full Steam Ahead program for young learners.
Simon founded her own company, Timouns (pronounced t-moons) in 2018, where she sells her books and coloring pages. "I knew I could write books and get kids thinking about inventing. That's why I started Timouns. In many ways, I think Abby is me writing a letter to my younger self, saying it's OK to be bold and curious. There are elements of my childhood in there. The Caribbean's bright colors are definitely an ode to my childhood."
Aside from publishing children's books, Simon also is an American Association for the Advancement of Science IF/THEN ambassador. The program aims to further women in STEM.
"We founded the IF/THEN initiative on the believe that 'IF she can see it, THEN she can be it,'" said Nicole Small, CEO of Lyda Hill Philanthropies and co-founder of the IF/THEN Initiative. "Our mission is to inspire young girls to pursue STEM careers and Dr. Simon's main character Abby, shows young girls, especially girls of color, that they too can be inventors. When readers picture a scientist, they see Abby, a girl who looks like them."
When she's not writing books or working, Simon said she still loves to get outside and take in the myriad adventures Oregon has to offer, like the Wooden Shoe Tulip Festival, vineyards and Mount Hood.
"I love Oregon. I fell in love with it on my first visit, which was maybe a year before I moved out here," Simon said. "It felt like a hidden gem, the waterfalls, the rivers, in many ways it felt like home. I had never been to a state in the U.S. that had so much nature."
Thursday, Feb. 11 is International Day of Women and Girls in Science.
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