One of the coolest regular events I attended while in Vancouver was Nerd Nite, where self-confessed ‘nerds’ share their projects and stories. On my first Nerd Nite, I learned about Scientoons – cartoons about science. Although younger audiences are just as important as older ones, I feel like they are often left out when it comes to our science communication efforts. Cartoons are a great way to spark kids’ interest in science, and can make learning much more appealing to them. They’re a great way of breaking down potential generational barriers, as well as bringing out the inner kid in older audiences too. I immediately fell in love with the concept and wanted to learn more about it. So I got in touch with Armin, the man behind the art, and probed his creative mind.
How did you get into science communication?
I loved science as a kid. I watched Magic School Bus, I was fascinated with dinosaurs and space.
I also lived in this other world where I loved drawing cartoons. I drew all the time, on any piece of paper I could find. Especially at school. In the margins of my homework, on my assignments – everywhere. But it didn’t occur to me to try to bring the two together. In high school, I watched a lot of House MD and Bones, and I got this fantastic idea that I wanted to be a doctor and help people. I assumed the art stuff would just be a hobby on the side, so I went after a science degree. I majored in Microbiology and Immunology at UBC, because it seemed like the easiest program. It wasn’t. It was brutal. I worked desperately just to stay afloat. Every term had at least one course that ended up being a major disaster. I was an anxious wreck during all the lab experiments, and I was always the last person to leave the lab. The teaching assistants had to help me the entire time, and they cleaned up after my mess. It was embarrassing. I applied to med school and to no surprise, I didn’t get the interview.
It seemed like I had no potential to work in a lab at all, and I hated research. I felt like a failure. Everyone else belonged in microbiology except for me. I struggled to remember why I liked science at all. What was this s*** that I was always getting anxiety for, working hours and hours just to try and get a good number on a piece of paper? Was this even science?
Then, after I graduated, I had an epiphany. I remembered that the reason I got excited about science in the first place was because of art. Because of stories. It was thanks to Bill Nye and Magic School Bus, not a university textbook.
I all of a sudden felt like every part of my body was activated. I loved drawing and telling stories. That was the one thing that I never doubted myself in. So I stopped moping, I sat down and made an actual plan. What did I want to do with my life? Be a science communicator. Okay – what did I need in order to achieve that? Some experience. So I applied to a Master’s in Digital Media. It was the smartest thing I ever did. For a full year, I worked in all sorts of student teams, making small prototypes of apps and games. I got tons of experience in design and project management, and pitching my ideas to dragon dens.
In the end, one of the clients that ended up collaborating with our school was UBC Faculty of Medicine. They wanted some digital media product to teach kids about health.
My team and I proposed that we make them an interactive comic. A comic about sleep health. And they said yes.
Bam – I finally made it to “medicine”. As a cartoonist.
What has been your favorite project so far?
The Adventures of Patoo. It’s an online interactive webcomic for grades 4-7, which is now being taught in the new BC curriculum. The website has two stories; one is about sleep health, and the other is about mental health and peer support. Check it out. It only works on desktop and iPad though.
It’s my favourite project because it’s absolutely ridiculous how much artistic freedom I was given, for the number of students and teachers it’s reaching. My employers must have really trusted me.
I remember walking home one day after an exhausting day of working on the comic, and laughing to myself like a maniac. Because when I was in grade 6 I would draw comics in class and they would be confiscated by the teacher. Now I was drawing comics for work – and they were going back to that same classroom, probably.
Why did you decide to focus on younger audiences? What challenges come with that?
Younger people are still absorbing the world with curiosity and excitement, and the cynicism hasn’t set in yet. So that’s the opportunity to strike.
If you can create a spark in someone at a young age, the possibilities are endless for when they grow up. If you don’t, then they’ll end up being that adult that thinks of science as the thing they dealt with at school; that thing that doesn’t matter anymore. My cousin told me about the planet Mars when I was 5, and to this day I’m obsessed with astronomy. Influences are super important.
The challenge with younger audiences is making your work authentic to them. The language and tone have to be just right. You have to speak to them on their level. Empathy is huge. Put yourself in their shoes. When you were their age, what excited you back then? What didn’t excite you? Why? Fix that. Be that difference.
Where do you see current issues in SciCom? What can be improved?
Ironically enough, the biggest issue is communication. SciCom isn’t just about explaining things to the public. To get there, you have to first explain things to your coworkers. Which is often worse. The best way to manage all this is to build your self-awareness and empathy.
When I worked at UBC making the comic for the BC curriculum, it was really hard to explain my ideas to my supervisors. I just thought, “they’re being dumb, why don’t they just get it? Why don’t they understand my comic ideas?” The thing is, I was an artist amongst doctors, teachers, and educators. Why should they have the same background knowledge as me? That was a ridiculous expectation on my part. So I had to learn empathy, and I had to learn how to simplify my ideas. I had to learn not to use art jargon. If I wanted to justify story decisions I had made, I used credible evidence-based sources to back up my ideas. The same applies to the other side; to communicate ideas to artists, you have to learn their language.
Do you have any advice for those wanting to get into science communication?
Try to figure out what your strengths are from family and friends. When something is routine to you, it becomes invisible after a while. It took about 4 years of undergrad and 2-3 friends to finally convince me to do drawings for science.
The other thing is to keep doing what you’re doing, and accept that you’ll be shit at it for a while. Just crank out as much “shit” as you can, it’s the only way to get better. I read somewhere that the reason you don’t like your work in the beginning is because you’re comparing it to all the best stuff that you consume. So in a way, it’s kind of good that you think your work is sub-par, because it means you’re being driven by a high standard. But don’t let that consume you. Don’t try to be perfect. Just try to get better every time.
If you wanna see more of Armin’s work, make sure to check out his Instagram account!