Dorothy Patent never thought she'd use her Ph.D. in zoology to write children's books.
It wasn't until she was a new mom who wanted to stay home to raise her kids that she realized she had a knack for helping people understand science, prompting her writing career.
"People would ask me questions about science and I would give an explanation and they would say 'Oh, you explain things really well, now I understand it,'" Patent said.
Now a well-established author, Patent has written over a hundred books over the past 40 years that have introduced children to numerous species of animals and topics such as gardening, the Western world and the Lewis and Clark expedition.
Patent has two new books coming out this month, which she'll be talking about at the Montana Book Festival in September. One, a nonfiction book for ages 5 to 10 that was awarded a star by Booklist, is called "At Home with the Beaver: The Story of a Keystone Species," and features photos from Canadian photographer and naturalist Michael Rutz. The other, called "Saving the Tasmanian Devil: How Science is Helping the World's Largest Marsupial Carnivore Survive," is geared for ages 10 and up and was given a star by Kirkus reviews.
Both books aim to educate kids about the respective species, while fostering an understanding of the interconnectedness of nature.
Patent said her beaver book is especially relevant right now as the Missoula-based National Wildlife Federation focuses its education efforts on beavers as a keystone species in the ecosystem for reasons she highlights in her book.
"It builds dams, it holds back streams, so that the water doesn’t all flow down in the spring and then everything dries up," Patent said.
Patent elaborated, saying the dams also create ponds that become home to thousands of species, and the water from the pond spreads out underground and nourishes plants that need water year round. "It completely changes the environment," she said.
The book includes photos of the various species that call the ponds and creeks home, like painted turtles and spotted salamanders and even maps out the food chain.
"I’m 10 years old inside," Patent said. "Everything still interests me. I’m curious about learning all kinds of stuff."
Patent said her curiosity started at a young age when she grew up just outside the San Francisco Bay Area and spent a lot of time hiking with her dog and looking for lizards and frogs. Her parents also encouraged her to explore the outdoors. Her dad also had a Ph.D. from Cal Berkeley and her mom "would have been a biologist in another life" if it weren't for societal norms that kept women out of science.
That wasn't the case for Patent, though.
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"I had a lot of support," she said. "My parents' idea was that all of their children should get as high a degree as possible...I was raised as a human being, not as a girl so I did not suffer a lot of those psychological barriers that so many girls have to struggle with."
Patent studied biology at Stanford, where she met her husband, Greg, before studying zoology at Berkeley. The couple had two kids and moved to Missoula when Greg got a job in the zoology department at the University of Montana. In 1970, Patent started writing after submitting a proposal for a book on the weasel family, which includes otters and wolverines, as well as weasels.
Patent said she focused on invertebrates in her studies, but she was able to apply her knowledge of the field to write the book.
"One of the things I felt I really learned as a scientist was how to use scientific literature and how to find the stuff you need," she said.
At the time, she would go to the library to do research and said she noticed there weren't a lot of books about science for kids. She started producing more books on a variety of species and around 1980, she started collaborating with photographer Bill Muñoz.
Patent estimates she has written about 140 to 150 books in total, and worked with Muñoz on about 100 of those.
Muñoz called his work with Patent "a true collaboration" that began when Patent called him to ask if he had photos of certain species of horses for a book she was working on called "Horses in America." He didn't but he was willing to go get them, and he invited her to come along.
"She was excited to go out and see the horses and our relationship started based on that collaboration," Muñoz said, adding he wouldn't have gotten into publishing if not for Patent.
Muñoz said he's helped come up with ideas for books too, such as several the two worked on about Lewis and Clark for the bicentennial that were about the plants and animals along the trail.
"Dorothy knows how to take the hardcore scientific information and make it come alive," he said. "She's able to make sense of what the scientists are saying and put it into plain English."
In addition to authoring books, Patent is an active member of an organization called iNK Think Tank, which works to foster kids' curiosity so they enjoy reading and learning more. The organization comprises award-winning nonfiction authors whose work holds true to the same goal. The authors also help kids develop their own writing skills, and maintain a blog and database of their books which kids can access for free.
"It’s important for young people to be able to read things and learn things that get them excited about life and the world and feed their curiosity," Patent said.
Patent will be participating in a panel discussion called Writing for the Ages with Beverly Chin and Doug Emlen at the Montana Book Festival on Saturday, Sept. 14 at 10:30 a.m. She will also give an author presentation, with the time to be determined.