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Spanish neuroscientist and Nobel laureate Santiago Ramón y Cajal ponders the branching structure of neurons in Neurocomic, by Matteo Farinella.

Matteo Farinella

How secret, late-night experiments transformed two scientists into master cartoonists

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Five years ago, two scientists in two labs separated by thousands of kilometers started to stay late and work weekends to conduct secret experiments. They didn’t know one another, but neuroscientist Matteo Farinella and computational biologist Jason McDermott were leading the same double lives: scientist and science cartoonist.

For Farinella, comics were always a guilty pleasure, something too silly to combine with his pursuit of scientific knowledge. That all changed when he let his secret identity slip to a colleague who encouraged him to wield his pen in the service of communicating science. He’s since created a variety of comics and illustrations—many on commission—and published Neurocomic, a graphic novel of the human brain that has been translated into nine languages. Farinella himself is now at Columbia University, studying what makes comics effective tools for communicating science.

McDermott mutated into a science cartoonist after a doodle he’d posted to Twitter struck a chord with fellow scientists. Now, he’s better known as the cartoonist behind @redpenblackpen than for his work at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington. His style, he says, is less narrative and more “biting” than his colleague’s. But his work still aims for the same goal: engaging the public, and fellow scientists, with ideas that might otherwise be too boring—or too difficult—to approach.

Together, the pair shared their superpowers at the annual meeting of AAAS (which publishes Science) here. We caught up with them to discuss how scientists—and science communicators—can unleash their own inner cartoonists. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: When should scientists think about using comics?

J.M.: Comics are worth considering for anyone looking to reach a broader audience. There are divides between scientific fields and between scientists and the general public. Comics can help bridge these divides by making a hard concept or complicated subject more approachable or appealing to audiences that might otherwise tune out.

Q: What can comics do that traditional presentations and papers cannot?

J.M.: There is a tendency of scientists to believe that if they create great research, everyone will see it and recognize it. But the reality is that a lot of important science only reaches a small audience.

M.F.: This is where comics can help: by adding in [a] narrative, characters, and metaphors that help convey complex ideas without being intimidating. Nobody is scared of comics—nobody has ever said, “I can’t read comics, they are too hard for me.” They can be a neutral ground for different worlds to meet.

Q: Where do you get your inspiration?

J.M.: A lot of my best work is more commentary on what it’s like being a scientist or being in academia.

So a bunch of my comics are inspired by some of the unique challenges of being a scientist, whether it’s being rejected by peer reviewers or dealing with imposter syndrome. The comics give me a place to find some humor in unexpected places, and I’ve found they resonate with other scientists.

M.F.: On a practical level, I will often do an internet image search and try to see how the science is traditionally represented or how other cartoonists handle a similar scene. Bad stock pictures can be really instructive in terms of helping me see areas that I can improve on.

Q: What’s your approach to creating a new comic?

J.M.: I usually brainstorm with drawings. I draw things and think about things the characters might be saying to each other. A lot of what this does is help me eliminate the ideas that aren’t working.

M.F.: I usually start with the text, especially on longer form projects. Then I try to figure out which parts would work well visually.

Q: How can people start to do comics?

M.F.: Jason actually published an article that has a lot of useful tips. But I would say if you’re not familiar with the format of comics, you can compensate by starting with subject matter you’re really familiar with and that you care about.

J.M.: Maybe you just try to draw some pictures along with your notes while you’re in a lecture or something. Just try it out. At this point, reading other science comics can also be really helpful to give you ideas and show what works.

M.F.: That’s how I started, just drawing cartoons and doodles during lectures and seminars. It gets you in the habit of thinking about how to summarize ideas visually. It’s also important to realize you don’t have to reinvent the wheel to create a successful science comic.

Q: But can you actually make money doing this?

M.F.: I’ve managed to find some success with my books, but getting funding and finding institutional support is still hard. There isn’t really a clear place for us to fit in. You have to squeeze comics into some category [that] they don’t exactly fit. … They’re always the outsider. I think creating more of a community of science cartoonists can help convince people there are a lot of talented folks doing this, and they have something to contribute.

Q: This panel originally had a third member, Susan Nasif, who couldn’t make it to the meeting. Can you tell our readers a little bit about her work and where they can find it?

M.F.: Susan is an incredible science cartoonist and a virologist. You can find her work on her website. She has a wonderful series of comics that convey a ton of information about the importance of vaccination in a way that’s engaging and fun.

J.M.: We were really disappointed she couldn’t be here. Susan is Syrian, and unfortunately, she was not allowed to enter the U.S. because of the travel ban. Twitter is another great way to connect with Susan and her work.