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Bibliophiles

A lover of science and fiction but not science fiction

Linda Griffith is a MacArthur “genius’’ grant recipient and MIT researcher. Linda Griffith is a MacArthur “genius’’ grant recipient and MIT researcher. (Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)
June 20, 2010

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Linda Griffith is the pioneering biomedical engineer responsible for growing a human ear on the back of a mouse. The MacArthur Foundation-certified genius serves as scientific director of the MIT Center for Gynepathology Research, where she and her team study endometriosis in hopes of curing it.

Besides her world-changing scientific work, Griffith is a passionate reader. On date night, she and husband Douglas Lauffenburger — a fellow MIT bioengineer — traipse over to the Harvard Book Store. Griffith also memorizes poetry for fun and can recite John Donne and William Faulkner on command.

Griffith recently underwent treatment for breast cancer.

Can you tell me about a book that changed your life?

I like a lot of Southern literature. I spent most of my childhood in south Georgia, near the Okefenokee Swamp. If you’re from the South and like reading, you find your way to Faulkner and Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy. I read “The Moviegoer’’ in college — it was published the year I was born. I went to a conference when I was an assistant professor. Doug was giving a lecture on bioadhesion. After the evening session, we got to talking about literature. He had read “The Moviegoer.’’ I had never met another engineer who knew Walker Percy! We ended up becoming really good friends, and then he ended up moving to MIT, and we ended up getting married.

What did you read during chemotherapy?

There would be days that I’d read enormously. When you first have your infusion, they give you these drugs that keep you up for three days. I read the first Steig Larsson novel, which, of course, you can read in one sitting.

I learned about a former ballerina named Toni Bentley through a New York Times book review she had written. The review was about feminists — it was very, very funny. I got her books, and I wrote her, and we got to be good friends.

So [during chemotherapy] I read “Winter Season,’’ her first book. It’s a beautiful memoir about being a young dancer in the New York City Ballet. I’ve recommended it to a lot of young women scientists. Contrary to a lot of women, I find science liberating. If I walk into MIT, they respect me. If I walk into Whole Foods, they don’t, necessarily. I find that a book like “Winter Season,’’ which describes how incredibly, incredibly difficult it is to dance for Balanchine, is helpful. You read it, and you think, “Guess what? Dancing for Balanchine is way harder than what I do!’’ Any career is tough if you have high expectations for yourself.

You read a lot of biography. Do you have a favorite?

I wouldn’t say I have a favorite, but I love the biography of Marie Curie — she went to France; her husband died; she had an affair with a French mathematician. I read that right around the time I got tenure, and it was amazing to read about that woman’s dedication to science.

Have you ever read a book more than once?

Sometimes I feel the need to go back to “The Castle’’ by Kafka, which is a very good book to describe a lot of situations.

I read “Candide’’ about once a year. It’s a great book, and it’s not very long — I can read it in about two hours. It’s just a great satire. You feel connected across generations, like you’re not the first one to have these feelings about your government, your society. I laugh every time.

Do you like satire in general?

I do, but I read everything — except science fiction.

EUGENIA WILLIAMSON