Neurocomic

Following my list of resources for fresh neuroscientists, I figured I’d share something for those interested in exploring neuroscience but not quite ready to pick up a textbook, namely neurocomic.

Neurocomic is a Wellcome Trust supported project that aims to explain neuroscience ideas to a lay audience using comics. The brainchild of neuroscientists Hana Ros (UCL) and Matteo Farinella (who is also the artist), the story follows a man as he is trapped inside a brain and journeys to escape. The quest takes him through neuron forests, distinct brain regions and visual metaphors of common concepts in neuroscience and psychology, encountering various beasts and scientists along the way. Judging by its reviews, most people find it accessible and accurate, if a bit short (and short on women). Personally, I am particularly enthused by the medium.

The process and ideas behind the project are explained in the video below, and might be of interest to potential readers and to researchers considering tools for effective science communication.

Using illustrations to communicate science (or any information, really) can be powerful. I tend to draw quite a lot in my work, and find that visualising problems helps me work through them faster and see connections that might not be immediately apparent. It works great as a study method too (see this paper for example), helping students remember content better. As for communicating information, it is superb. I have a list of favourite science comics that have introduced me to new concepts more than once (I am particularly looking at you, xkcd, and your lovely comic explanation wiki). While three-panel strips rarely provide a full picture of a scientific concept, they can certainly offer a brief and memorable introduction. Similarly, neurocomic’s 150 pages are not enough to encompass the entire history and science of brain research, but it is a good place to start to get a flavour for some of the ideas in the field.

Neurocomic is on twitter @neurocomic

My top 7 science-themed comics

There are quite a few science-themed online comics out there, many of which are excellent. I thought I would share my favourites here, many of which are comics that have followed me for years, from the early days of PhD research, thesis writing, paper writing, paper rejection, job hunting, job rejection, late days in the lab, early days in the pub, new jobs, old jobs, new gross fluids, old gross fluids, data that doesn’t make sense and data that makes even less sense – in short, all the crazy of science.

In no particular order:

XKCD (https://xkcd.com/). XKCD is a comic about math, sarcasm, romance and language. I have seen perhaps a smidge more sarcasm than romance, but this may just be my interpretation. Nevertheless, XKCD is fantastic. It is written by a physics graduate and manages to be both funny and educational (for us non-physics people) at the same time. (It offers explanations: http://www.explainxkcd.com!)

sky_color

Red Pen/Black Pen (https://redpenblackpen.tumblr.com/). Home of the oft-shared peer-review car illustration, Red Pen/Black Pen takes a slightly cynical view on the world of academia and has a hint of a computational biology angle. Also on Twitter as @redpenblackpen.

car_peer_review_comic_12

The Awkward Yeti (http://theawkwardyeti.com/). Features the cutest gallbladder in comics. This is a anatomy/medicine-themed comic which follows the eponymous awkward yeti, Lars, and his organs as they deal with social situations, anxiety, bodily functions and bodily malfunctions. There is even a spinoff, called Heart and Brain.

gall-bladder

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (https://www.smbc-comics.com/). SMBC is a quirky and occasionally sciency comic, covering anything from religion to economics to astronomy in daily, stand-alone strips. Its vast archive is enough to lose all productivity for at least a week.

zimbardo

The Upturned Microscope (https://theupturnedmicroscope.com). Written by a cell biology PhD, hence rife with funny lab mishaps and a good dose of cynicism. For someone who is not used to working in a white coat, the Upturned Microscope is a great view into a world of reagents gone wrong.

scihub

Piled Higher and Deeper (http://phdcomics.com/comics.php). Also called PhD comics (geddit?), as it revolves around the ups and downs and potential free food of graduate life, with a few post doc experiences thrown in for good measure. This is the place to go if you are struggling with the thesis and want to know that you’re not alone.

comic1_phd

Bird and Moon (http://www.birdandmoon.com/). I have not read as much Bird and Moon as I would like, having only come to it in the past year. It is a beautifully drawn comic by Rosemary Mosco, a field naturalist, that centers on the weird and wonderful aspects of nature and wildlife.

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(UPDATE: here is a recently published paper on drawing science comics, titled
“Ten simple rules for drawing scientific comics” by Jason McDermott (Red Pen/Black Pen), Matthew Partridge (Errant Science) and Yana Bromberg:  http://journals.plos.org/ploscompbiol/article?id=10.1371/journal.pcbi.1005845)

Art+Science

I have been thinking about art lately. The University of Sheffield’s annual Festival of Academic Writing is coming up and I have just finished reviewing a few papers and grant applications. Mostly, this has made me consider how scientists can suffocate enthusiasm for even the most exciting finding in a single passive paragraph (never mind a whole string of them), and I may do a post about the horrors of the ‘academese’ language at a later stage. However, as the planning for next year’s Festival of the Mind is also underway, I wanted to write about something more positive: how art and science can work together.

Science and art to me are two sides of the same coin. Both aim to understand and describe the world, each in their own way. Science is the more objective of the two, but the way we gather and interpret data is without doubt influenced by our assumptions and world view. Art, on the other hand, challenges these assumptions, offers new ways of looking at the world. In short, science can answer our questions, but art may just help us ask the right ones. We need both to progress.

I  have a great deal of time for art barging into the halls of data and analysis (or for that matter, science picking up the brushes and the paint). Either way, it is a bold move, and the results could be equally impressive. As a prime example on how art and science can work together, watch this video by Jan Fröjdman, who has painstakingly pieced together still images of Mars (from the HiRISE camera) to generate a representation of a ‘live’ flight over the red planet. It is an absolutely stunning interpretation of data.

A FICTIVE FLIGHT ABOVE REAL MARS by Jan Fröjdman (see Vimeo for image credit).

Sheffield has a thriving art scene, and one that is not frightened of interacting with the sciences. The before-mentioned annual Festival of Academic Writing lets academics write creative pieces for the Journal of Imaginary Research and poke fun at the near-obligatory passive voice to their little hearts’ content. I very much enjoyed taking part last year and have just signed up for the upcoming November workshop. There are plenty of art installations throughout both the year and the city that communicate hot-off-the-press research to the public alongside more traditional science outreach events. The winter gardens is a frequently used venue and a good place to go for a bit of lateral thinking. There are artists who specialise in the communication of science and medicine, for example through the live-drawing of conferences, and who manage to reduce complex concepts to easily-interpreted visuals. And how about the live art-rock soundtrack to footage from the Hubble Telescope (plus three Georges Méliès films for good measure)? These are excellent ways of communicating science, as well as perhaps offering up new ways of looking at old questions.

Above are examples of Sheffield’s Art+Science scene (all images reproduced with permission). At the top left, there is Luke Jerram’s giant inflatable E. Coli hovering in the Winter Gardens, which surely had the potential to inspire both budding microbiologists and nightmares during KrebsFest 2015. Top right is artist Kate Sully‘s excellent work for The Journey of Reproductive Life from the University of Sheffield’s 2016 Festival of the Mind. The 2018 Festival is already being planned, with the involvement of animators, musicians, visual and digital artists, dancers and performers. Below Sully’s art is the cover of the Journal of Imaginary Research, vol 2 (2017), with work on volume 3 starting in November 2017 for publication in early 2018. Bottom left is a beautiful representation of signal in the ovary created by Isam Sharum, Felicity Tournant and Sofia Granados-Aparici (Ovary Research Group, 2015) – one of several pieces of science-inspired art within the University of Sheffield and one which I get to admire every morning.

Art has a lot to offer the sciences. Of course, if one want to take the mercenary view, a collaboration with the arts would probably fit the parameters for an impact case for the Research Excellence Framework. But aside from the REF, art can be used to communicate science, to inspire curiosity, to guide our questions and to make a whole generation dream of jet packs and rocket ships.