With science-related issues dominating headlines over the past year, the need for clear communication of the challenging topics is stronger than ever. At UO, students and professors are working together to figure out how to impart that kind of information. Assistant professor of physics Tien-Tien Yu and assistant professor of comics studies Kate Kelp-Stebbins have teamed up to create the UO Science and Comics Initiative. Since spring 2020, eight undergraduate fellows have collaborated with researchers to create comic books that use illustration to help explain scientific matters.
Yu grew interested in exploring the idea after participating in a workshop at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York a few years ago. When she learned about UO’s first in the nation Comics & Cartoon Studies Program, she made contact with Kelp-Stebbins. “My initial hopes were two-fold: One was to disseminate knowledge about science—particularly the science done at UO—to the broader community in a way that was memorable and accessible,” Yu says. “The second hope was to foster a relationship and collaboration between the humanities and sciences at UO.”
The program is partially funded by Yu’s National Science Foundation grant, which has a portion dedicated to “broader impacts.” Each term, two student applicants are chosen to receive the $1,000 fellowship and spend the term collaborating on their comic with a designated UO researcher. Yu said she received enthusiastic responses from colleagues interested in participating in the program. So far students have created comics on topics including dark matter, serotonin, and biological populations in space. “From my own perspective, I’ve just been astonished at how adept our students are at using the comics form,” Kelp-Stebbins says. “They’re such great artists and they’re such great storytellers.”
Audra McNamee, a Clark Honors College senior majoring in math and computer science and minoring in environmental studies and comics studies, participated in the fellowship alongside assistant professor of biology Luca Mazzucato, creating “A Trip Into Serotonin.”
“I think this form of interdisciplinary collaboration is absolutely essential for a number of reasons,” McNamee says. “First, it’s genuinely an excellent way to lay out scientific information clearly, the combination of words and images, along with the fact that the reader can consume it as slowly or quickly as they’d like, make it suited to conveying complicated scientific ideas, full stop. Science communication in general is absolutely essential—no matter how much groundbreaking science occurs, if the public doesn’t know about it, it can’t be harnessed for the public good.”
The Science and Comics Initiative comics can currently be viewed via comics.uoregon.edu, but Kelp-Stebbins aims to share them more widely through a future gallery exhibit and/or a printed book. The founders also hope to push the program goals of diversity and inclusion further by translating the comics to other languages as well. “We want as many people as can possibly read them and get excited about them to do so,” Kelp-Stebbins says.
Illustration by Dan Pegoda