Slideshow: Grad Student Turns Scientific Meeting Into a Cartoon

For Alex Cagan, 140 characters were just not enough. At the Biology of Genomes meeting last week in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, the graduate student from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, contributed 54 cartoons to the Twittersphere. Over the course of each 20-minute talk, he drew a caricature of the speaker and then graphically conveyed the gist of the presentation with a few choice phrases and sometimes a diagram.

Son of a set designer who worked in the London theaters, Cagan grew up drawing and was even an art and art history major in college before becoming interested in biology. He spends 2 evenings a week on his art. “I try not to get stagnant,” he says. But he applies his hand in the lab as well, sketching the rats he’s breeding to be tame or aggressive to understand the genetic basis of domestication. He has a lab notebook filled with the various postures these animals assume during different encounters.

This meeting is the third at which he sketched his tweets. He felt that by drawing instead of just writing text, he could contribute something unique on Twitter, and judging from the likes and retweets, he’s slowly gaining a following.

At meetings, he likes to draw the speaker whenever he’s taking notes, regardless of whether he’s tweeting. “When I try to remember the talk, if I have notes with the actual person, it triggers my memory,” he explains. “When I just have text, it’s harder to remember.”

An iPad mini is his medium, and with a free app called Paper by FiftyThree, he can quickly draw and erase with his fingers, or turn on the painting palette and fill in the sketches using the watercolor brush function. “I’m surprised that more people aren’t doing it.”

The slideshow above shows a few of his favorite tweets from the meeting.