Drawn to Science

Audra McNamee's comic book panel
Drawn to Science

Research faculty members and students from the UO’s first-in-the-nation comics studies minor bring complex concepts to life through illustrations

Story by Lewis Taylor

The University of Oregon Science/Comics Interdisciplinary Research Program pairs artistic students with accomplished scientists to create dynamic illustrations that tackle subjects not normally seen in the pages of a comic book—complex concepts such as neuromodulation of brain states, biological populations in space, and the search for dark matter—in an artistic mode not normally seen in a science textbook.

The innovative program was founded through a collaborative and interdisciplinary effort between physics assistant professor Tien-Tien Yu and comics studies assistant professor Kate Kelp-Stebbins. Under the program, selected students receive fellowships of $1,000.

Since its launch in spring 2020, the partnerships have given rise to a growing stack of brightly illustrated and entertaining comics that are remarkably effective vehicles for science communication. Students and faculty members agree: the creative collaboration is challenging but enriching.

Before getting into nonfiction comics, Chloe DaMommio was focused on sculptural forms of art, including polymer clay and needle felting. A junior marine biology major, DaMommio partnered with UO assistant professor Jayson Paulose, a theoretical physicist in condensed matter physics. One of Paulose’s scientific questions is understanding how biological populations expand in space, which proved to be a fit with DaMommio’s interest in marine biology.

Chloe DaMommio's comic panel
Chloe DaMommio's comic portrait

marine biology; class of 2022
SUBJECT: Biological Populations in Space
PARTNER: Jayson Paulose, physics

“This comic is so much better than something I could have made on my own. I can see it being one of the things I’m going to be proudest of in terms of art that I’ve created.”

The brainchild of Yu, the collaborations are partially funded through a National Science Foundation grant that earmarks money for science with “broader impact.”

“It’s a really fantastic way to bridge these two parts of campus that traditionally don’t have a whole lot of interaction with each other—the humanities and the hard sciences,” Yu says. “As a scientist, part of my goal is to make science more accessible in the sense that knowledge of the work that’s being done at the UO belongs to everybody in the community. We should all have access to it and here’s this very digestible way of sharing that knowledge.”

Mary Hubbert, an art and technology major and comics and cartoon studies minor, paired up with Yu to illustrate the comic, Getting to Know Dark Matter. Her crash course in theoretical physics included reading scientific journal articles, looking at other comic illustrations of physics, and meeting regularly with Yu to share sketches and exchange ideas. As an art and technology major, she says most of her contacts on the technological side of the fence have been with product design specialists and architects rather than working scientists.

Mary Hubbert's comic book panel

art and technology, comics and cartoon studies; class of 2021
SUBJECT: Getting to Know Dark Matter
PARTNER: Tien-Tien Yu, physics

“If you have a better understanding of science, you can appreciate the technical aspects of art better. If you also have an appreciation of art, you can appreciate the beauty of nature and science better. They work in tandem.”

“It was maybe the coolest experience I’ve had at the University of Oregon,” says Audra McNamee, a junior in the Clark Honors College majoring in math and computer science and minoring in environmental studies and comics studies. “There’s this built-in hook with comics. It’s not like you’re picking up a novel or a scientific article . . . you can pick up a comic about anything. It’s friendly. It won’t bite.”

McNamee created her first science comic book for a ninth-grade biology project. Since then, she’s tackled other difficult topics with comics, including a nonfiction work she’s currently creating on the history of computer science and some of its basic concepts. McNamee paired with Luca Mazzucato, an assistant professor of biology and a member of the Institute of Neuroscience, to create the comic, A Trip into Serotonin, which explored neuromodulators and the regulation of brain activity.

Audra McNamee's comic book panel
Audra McNamee's comic book portrait

Clark Honors College; mathematics and computer science, environmental studies, comics and cartoon studies; class of 2022
SUBJECT: A Trip Into Serotonin
PARTNER: Luca Mazzucato, biology and mathematics

“I love drawing things and I do have lots of things I’m confused about. I want to research them and then explain them with comics. They offer you the ability to lay out things in this gripping, graphical way and both show things visually, and also keep people entertained visually.”

The science-comics partnership is housed within the comics studies program, which offers a first-in-the-nation comics and cartoon studies minor. Kelp-Stebbins, associate director of the program and an assistant professor in the Department of English, says the fellowship offers great opportunities for students, makes science more accessible, and creates new interdisciplinary connections across the university.

“There have been a lot of fun science-oriented comics for a very long time,” Kelp-Stebbins says. “But it’s no longer just grad students and college students sharing these things and having a cultish sort of fandom, it’s getting more and more mainstream.”

An art and technology major minoring in comics studies in the Clark Honors College, Rose Gibian grew up reading comics and watching Bill Nye the Science Guy. She collaborated with Tim Cohen, an associate professor who studies theoretical particle physics, and set about to illustrate a scientific question known as the hierarchy problem. In exploring the concept, Gibian had to illustrate a fictional life form.

Rose Gibian's comic book panel
Rose Gibian's comic book portrait

Clark Honors College; art and technology, comics and cartoon studies; class of 2021
SUBJECT: How to Build a Universe
PARTNER: Tim Cohen, physics

“I was trying to envision what an interdimensional creature that makes universes would look like. They ended up being these lava-lamp-like creatures. Their bodies can move around and change color and shape based on how they’re feeling.”

Science comics continue to gain legitimacy as more organizations get in on the action, including the American Physical Society, which has been attending the popular International Comic Con gathering in San Diego for more than a decade to showcase its line of physics comic books for middle-school teachers, and academic journals like Science and Nature, which are starting to experiment with the genre.

“We’re seeing that so much more is possible,” Kelp-Stebbins says. “Science comics is one example of how we’re getting crossover between what we would consider informatics systems and artistic systems of expression that are being used in tandem to really reach a much more mainstream audience, but also to democratize these forms of knowledge and get more people reading about the world.”