Caroline draws stories of the everyday scientist

Sci-artist Caroline Hu opens up about what it's like to be a cartoonist in the science world and a scientist in the art world in this insightful Q&A.

By Ipsa Jain

Editorial Note: As a feminist multimedia science collective, TLoS aims to critically explore the challenge of making science communication more potent. This post is the second in a series of articles deliberating on SciArt. It will raise important questions posed to science art professionals in India and the US, and also bring together some amazing SciArt to guide the conversation.

The rising interest in science communication has brought with it a rising interest in SciArt as well. After setting the stage for my deep dive into SciArt with a conversation with Kolkata’s Arghya Manna, I went on to catch up with some international practitioners, whose work and insights can help the growing community here.  I first found Caroline Hu’s work on social media. She is a comix artist and a practising scientist, currently a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University, USA. There, she works on understanding inherited instinctive behaviors, like nest-making in wild mice. Her art is inspired by the practice of science. Her visual metaphors are derived from science, but are not necessarily about communicating scientific concepts or phenomena. This led me to my ever-present confusion: where do boundaries of SciArt and science communication meet and where do they diverge. I decided to ask Caroline.

IJ: What sparked and propelled your journey in science? Did you have to choose between science and art?

CH: I’ve wanted to be a scientist since I was a little kid. One of my playtime activities was to group a huge bunch of shells based on their features. Since it’s hard to practice science without a degree (unlike art), I pursued my education up to a Ph.D. in biology. Right now, I am a PostDoc at Harvard University. I study how different wild mice make different kinds of homes, and how it is related to their genetics and brains. Art, I could and continue to practice on my own.

A young scientist full of wonder from Caroline’s comix, the Little Scientist

IJ: Have you experienced a gender gap in science?

CH:  I have seen that women in science are treated differently or advised differently than their male colleagues. For example, we are asked to be more agreeable during presentations. This even affects how a prospective PI decides to work with you. Male colleagues have never gotten that advice. I, personally, don’t think that I have lost a position or didn’t get in somewhere because of my gender.

IJ: Did you ever feel discriminated against because of your Asian-American origins in the USA?

CH: I’ve got some pretty racist coronavirus related comments recently, even from scientists! Otherwise, Boston is a fairly liberal place.

If you are from an ethnic background that’s not represented enough, there is an unfair expectation on you to do more diversity and outreach work on your campus. I can’t NOT do it, and others don’t have to do this extra work. I totally think that scientists have their own role to play in representation. But I also think that at the university level, it should be someone’s job. Why do I have to do even more work than there already is?

A lot of us are just normal scientists—not Nobel Prize winners or ‘disease-curers’— whose science and life will not become biographies. So, I felt compelled to share that narrative. 

IJ: How did you get initiated into comix? Was comix a new medium for you?

CH:  I was drawing before I was writing. It’s always been a part of my processing and understanding of the world. I read a lot of comix growing up and even drew some comix. I had this idea for a long-form comix during my Masters. It was a story of how a young apprentice grad student became a scientist. And then, grad school happened! Once I started my PostDoc and encountered some other life-changing events, I decided to just do it. I went for a week-long workshop at the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont. It re-lit that fire, and I made a short story at that time. I promised my peers there that I will turn these 8 pages to a 24-page story by the time my local Indie Comix expo happens. It was having this social accountability, and this new spark, that made it happen in 2018.

 

Cover page of Caroline’s comix, The Little Scientist, shows a young scientist entering the forest of academia.

IJ: Your first comix, The Little Scientist is a story about inquiry and the scientific process. How did you choose that narrative? 

CH: My perspective comes from a scientist’s struggle to understand the natural world. In a scientist’s life, you try out things, and a lot of things don’t work.

I wanted to share more of the scientific method with my audience. People don’t often get to see the process of doing science. In available content, for young people interested in science, there’s a lot of books about phenomena like a book on butterflies. The next thing available is biographies of famous scientists. There is a huge gap between these two kinds of content. How would you bridge someone who is just interested in science and someone who’s practicing science? A lot of us are just normal scientists—not Nobel Prize winners or ‘disease-curers’— whose science and life will not become biographies. So, I felt compelled to share that narrative.

Also, for some people, grad school is really a struggle. The Little Scientist is really this ‘hero’s’ journey. I grew up reading a lot of hero-oriented Japanese comix, e.g.,  Pokemon where you feel like you’re in a battle where the odds are really against you. And so, I thought that it was absolutely fitting to turn this into a comic.

A page from Caroline’s comix, The little scientist, alludes to difference in reality and expectation of academic environment

IJ: Your comix are not explainers, a refreshing change from a lot of science-inspired comix I see during SciComm events and activities back home. Do you think of science-inspired comix as a science communication activity? 

CH: I feel there is a huge bubble of science-art. And science communication is nested within #SciArt. Science communication work would have some intention to it, to pass a sort of message. If you have a cool field of tardigrades, it evokes a sense of sublimity. But in my head, it’s not science communication.

Sci comix are more abstract and have more creative freedom. They may not necessarily be for science communication.

IJ: You organise regular sketching meetups for women and non-binary cartoonists. How have you worked on building this community? How has it helped your work?

CH: I currently organise a sketching meetup every two weeks. It is for women and non-binary cartoonists. And it all started when a local comic book store actually organised a meetup for the same group. A common sentiment was not having enough time to draw. We figured that if we had a scheduled meetup and we blocked that time with full accountability, we can utilise the time to draw. It’s been great! It ranges from people who publish work regularly, to folks who just come to sketch. We just chat about something (now we have moved it online) and draw. It is very helpful for those of us who are not always among other artists to have artist peers.

 

A snapshot of work from sketching meetups that serve as a place of practicing and sharing feedback.

IJ: I also hope to build a peer community of SciArt practitioners within our country. There is a lot to learn from each other and hone our process. How do you start working on the comix once you have an idea? 

CH: I tend to script through thumbnailing. Once I have thought through the idea, I start thumbnailing. I make my thumbnails, on a quarter size of what it will be, and check the print out on regular paper. In the thumbnails, one can tell who’s saying something; one can read the text. And then, once I’m happy with that, I sketch traditionally and color it in.

I work digitally as it makes reproduction during printing easier.

A glimpse into the preparation done to build a comix.

IJ: Who are other comix artists you look up to?

CH: Matteo Farinella has a very distinct style especially with visual metaphors. I like educational comix by Rosemary Mosco. Tillie Walden’s stories have that romantic element. Rosemary Valero O’connell’s work also makes you feel the wonder. I also hope to grow as a storyteller and build places that have similar elements of romance and wonder in my comix.

They say, “it’s a talent’’, which I think is a flawed perception of art that “you’re just born with it” as if it doesn’t take a lot of practice, like any other discipline.

IJ: You are a scientist and a cartoonist. How does the scientific community react to your work as a cartoonist? How do cartoonists respond to having a scientist among them? Have you felt supported by the science community and accepted by the comix community?

CH: My colleagues in science either respond positively or have no response. People see the utility in being able to make illustrations for your work and to make really nice PowerPoint presentations. They say, “it’s a talent’’, which I think is a flawed perception of art that “you’re just born with it” as if it doesn’t take a lot of practice, like any other discipline. My advisor has been quite supportive and encouraging. My work stands out at comix convention as there as not many of us (scientists) there. Also, it’s coming from my first-hand perspective. No one there really said that I don’t belong.

A comparison of development between different genotypes.

“Within the science community, there are strong opinions discouraging you to put emotions in your work. And I personally say, leave in the emotion.”

IJ: The lack of acknowledgement of effort and dedication needed to make creative work is often seen in the Indian ecosystem as well. What are the other challenges you have faced as a comix artist? Has your experience as a scientist helped in making your way into the comix?

CH: The challenges have been very similar to some of the challenges I faced in science. One just has to go for it and not give in to the impostor syndrome. It is also nice to get your work reviewed by peers. Sometimes you gotta just speak up and advocate for yourself. If anyone else is struggling with that, I assure you, you’re not alone. If you are new or feel like everything’s ruined, then give yourself a break and be like, you know what – once upon a time, you didn’t know how to do a PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction). You’re gonna be okay.

Sensing the physical realm

IJ: That’s a great point. Learning and practice will help you reach the quality of work you wish to achieve. And this cycle of improvement will continue. Do you have any other suggestions for growing science communicators/artists?

CH: Narratives are important in terms of conveying information and making a connection with your audience. Within the science community, there are strong opinions discouraging you to put emotions in your work. And I personally say, leave in the emotion. I care about issues within science, human health, and the environment. Coming across these emotions in my work might make the readers care about it too. Don’t discard your personal styles or motivations as you are not only a science communicator, you’re also an artist. You don’t need to purge that all out for professionalism! Hold on to what makes you, you!

Note: This piece is a part of Season 5 of TheLifeofScience.com sponsored by DBT/Wellcome Trust India Alliance. All images belong to the artist, Caroline Hu, All rights reserved. 

Fact box: Comics are used to describe the old school funnies, absurds, and superhero stories from major publishing houses (Marvel and DC).

Comix is used to describe a visual-verbal space for experimental ideas that are supported by the underground/self-published work/ other publishing houses.

By TLoS Team | Published on Aug 4, 2020 in Arts

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