Science Drawings Essay

At a recent scientific conference, someone I had never met looked at my nametag and said, “Oh, you're that comic guy.” Now, I'm a researcher with more than 20 years of experience in my field, and part of me wishes that this was what I was recognized for. But after a chance doodle snowballed into a poster entirely in comic form, I am also “that comic guy.” I am still getting used to this dual identity. After a bit of hesitation, though, I've decided to embrace the pleasures of my two pursuits—and their unexpected points of connection.

“I am a scientist who draws, … and I am at peace with my two selves.”

I didn't start drawing seriously until relatively recently. I have dabbled and doodled for most of my life, but I'm not a great artist. More important, I thought, why would I—a scientist—spend time making art? Then, about 5 years ago, a co-worker made an analogy that struck me so visually that I felt compelled to sketch it. I posted the resulting cartoon online—I had recently started blogging about science—and the positive response from my small following kindled a creative spark. Before long, another metaphor that begged for visual representation came to me. So I drew another comic.

What started so casually has since evolved into a regular activity. My web comic now has several thousand followers, and I've become comfortable with the deficiencies in my artistic abilities. Yet, until recently, for the most part I looked at my cartooning as frivolous and fun—an activity separate from my science.

I'm now recognizing that it's more than that. On a personal level, it has become a form of therapy as I express, in a humorous way, my frustrations with academic life and the business of science. My comics also help me engage with the broad scientific community. My daytime work may only interest a small group of people, but in my comics, I can address topics that are important to all researchers, including publishing and peer review, time management, and the process of doing science. Connecting with others about these issues helps give purpose to my drawing and motivates me to continue.

It also helps me get over my ambivalence about my work “on the side” garnering more attention than my science. That change came to a head after I created that poster, which was about teaching researchers how to deal with big data. As soon as it went up at that recent conference, I was reminded of the power of the comic medium. People would walk by, turn their heads, and then walk over. A lot of people. In addition to discussing the poster's topic, we talked about comic drawing, my science “day job,” and—on several occasions—why scientific posters are largely so dull and uninviting. These conversations convinced me that comics can play an important role in the active discourse and engagement that science requires, and they helped me put aside my qualms about being “that comic guy.”

Since I tacked up that poster, I have been asked to provide illustrations for a book; invited to publish a comic in a scientific journal; and contacted by scientists and academics who want to use my comics in blog posts, publications, presentations, and newsletters. I've also begun to give cartooning a more prominent role in communicating my research. When I featured my comics in a recent talk at an international meeting, I was gratified that they elicited laughter, questions, and follow-on discussions.

By blending my two identities, I hope to be able to bring some of the outreach power of comics to my science, and some of the weight of my scientific work to my comics. I am a scientist who draws, I have decided, and I am at peace with my two selves. In the end, they are really just one: a scientist who is drawn—pun intended—to communicate.

With nineteenth century Audubon prints now fetching record rates at auction, an art exhibit entitled Plants, Birds and Pollinators: Art Serving Science is more likely to evoke historic than contemporary associations.

However, the watercolor, ink, and pencil illustrations at the Denver Botanic Gardens’ El Pomar Gallery (exhibited through February 9, 2014) are all modern works. Collectors may regard them as decorative, but their primary purpose is functional.

This leads one to wonder if, in the era of Photoshop, Instagram and “selfies”, as time-consuming, labor-intensive and tedious form of documentation as scientific illustration is still necessary. 

“Absolutely,” says John Clark, Science and Conservation and McBryde Senior Research Fellow at the National Tropical Botanical Garden in Kalaheo, Hawaii. “There is diversity within a species. Illustration offers us the opportunity to present the ideal or representative of that species.”

When asked to further unpack, he provides the following parallel: “Imagine an alien comes to Earth and they look at me and they look at Dennis Rodman…”

The alien would note the distinct similarities and differences between the flamboyant, 6’8” African American former basketball player and the droll, hazel-eyed research fellow. Having a simplified, “generic ideal human being” line drawing to cross reference would give the perplexed extraterrestrial a better chance at correctly categorizing both Clark and Rodman as Homo sapiens. 

Erin Tripp, Assistant Professor of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, is equally emphatic that illustration is irreplaceable. While earning her doctorate at Duke University, Tripp worked with an illustrator to document rarely-seen Mexican plants, hoping her work would lead to more examples found in the field.

“In some cases I was successful. In some cases I found nothing,” Tripp says. “I put together a publication with all these twelve species illustrated in detail. Sure enough, after that paper was published someone wrote to me and said he found one. He was a natural history enthusiast. Lots of people don’t speak the language of botany, but everyone speaks the language of illustration.”

Jenny Keller, the Program Specialist at the California State University, Monterey Bay, Office of Extended Education Science Illustration Program­­ -- and one of the science illustrators featured in the Denver Botanic Gardens exhibit ­-- points out the advantages of being able to show a plant or animal in cutaways and close-ups. “You can point things out, you can highlight things and call the viewer’s attention to a certain detail by making it color or black and white.”

The two pages of Keller’s field journal, featured in a corner glass display case, come complete with marginalia and color keys.

“Being in the presence of an actual specimen is the best,” Keller says, explaining how she obtained the illustration featured in the exhibit. “I held the book up to the flower so I couldn’t see where the flower ended and the paper began. I ended up with my color palette.”

Her efforts did not go unappreciated. In testimony to Keller’s accuracy of color and line, hungry hummingbirds began dive-bombing the pages to investigate the two-dimensional flowers.

Susanna Speier is a freelance writer who has been published in Westword, The Daily Beast, The Denver Post, Poynter.com, Scientific American Blogs, Nature.com and Colorado Biz. She tweets at @SusannaSpeier .

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