Uncle Bob: So, tell me -- what do you do, exactly?
You: I study the 3D epigenome of the developing brain [or insert other science-y topic here]. We use next generation sequencing technology to better understand how the orientation of genes in 3D space impacts the cell state, and then how that in turn impacts brain development.
Uncle Bob: Uh huh -- so... do you use 3D glasses to look at genies?
You: Kind of.....
And it's totally not Uncle Bob's fault for understanding what 'the 3D epigenome of the developing brain' means, because it's taken you 20 years of school to get to the point of studying 3D epigenomes, plus it's a pretty dense topic and it wasn't until 3 months into your rotation that you finally 'got it'. Sort of.
As you can probably tell, I've had this conversation on numerous occasions. For being a person who generally prides herself on being able to explain scientific topics to kids pretty well, I've found explaining my PhD research to be a whole new level of challenging. That's why I was so excited when I came across the awesome comic, Atomic Size Matters, by Veronica Berns. As she explains on her website, Veronica first conceived of making comics about her research when she was getting ready to defend her PhD in chemistry:
"I began to think about how much I had put into my graduate school career, and how everything would culminate in a dissertation. But I was disappointed when I realized my non-scientist family and friends would never read it. I often struggled to explain my work to them, because I knew they were all capable of understanding the ideas, but they just aren't well-versed in the jargon. Over the next eight months, I wrote and drew a comic book version of part of my graduate research. I included the comic itself as the final chapter in my official thesis."
I had a chance to ask Veronica some questions about her scientific journey as well as her comics. She's definitely got me thinking about making an awesome comic of a genie wearing 3D glasses...
Beta Pleated Chic: How did you first become interested in science? Is it something you've always been interested in, or do you remember 'discovering' it?
Veronica M. Berns: I've been interested in science since I can remember. When I went to the library as a kid, I never brought home story books. Instead I would check out non-fiction books about animals and nature. I was a big fan of Magic School Bus books too. I have always been happiest when learning about the world.
BPC: What has your scientific journey been? What topics have you researched in the past, and what are you currently working on?
VMB: I knew I wanted to do chemistry from my first chemistry class in high school. When I looked at colleges, I made sure my top choices had solid chemistry programs. Northwestern fit the bill, and the program there was everything I hoped it would be. While I loved all of my classes, doing research really provided me with the experience I was looking for. I worked on synthesis of solid oxide fluorides in the Poeppelmeier Group, my first taste of making new materials. I went on to graduate school at UW, eager to learn more about how crystalline materials take on order. I spent five years working on my degree, thinking about order and disorder in metallic compounds. For the past year I've been employed at UOP, a Honeywell company. We make zeolites, a class of materials with very large holes in their crystal structures, making them extremely useful for catalysis and separations.
BPC: Where did the idea of Atomic Size Matters come from? What was it like actually implementing your ideas? Did you hit any major road blocks?
VMB: The idea of the comic book came from when I was about a year away from graduating, I started thinking about how I would talk to my family about my work. It was a big accomplishment for me, and I wanted them to understand why. Since none of my relatives are chemists, I had to find some way to translate the excitement of doing cutting edge science without using the foreign language of science.
Ever since I was little, my dad and I always did a lot of drawings, just to make each other laugh. We're both big fans of comics, so it made sense to pair the words with funny little drawings in a comic book form. The book is intended to feel like a conversation with me, with a few sketches thrown in.
BPC: Do you have any comics you're working on that you're particularly excited about?
VMB: I've got a full time job outside of the comics, so it's hard to find time to be making new stuff! I have some ideas for future projects, and I hope to be able to find more time for them soon.
BPC: How do you decide what topics would make good material for your comics? Do you try to pick things that you can easily think of a visual explanation, or do you intentionally choose topics that aren't that way to have a bigger challenge?
VMB: Some topics lend themselves really well to visual explanations, but theoretical chemistry isn't exactly one of them. I like to choose topics based on how cool I think they are, and then think of the visualization later. It sometimes makes it hard to work quickly, but I think it makes for a more satisfying product at the end.
BPC: What are you hoping the impact of your comics will be?
VMB: I'm hoping that people will first of all enjoy what they read! I think the science content is important, but I tried to make the comic humorous and fun at the same time. I also hope that more people take the book as an example of an idea: Communicate your work. No matter how difficult it might seem, we as scientists need to give more attention to the way we talk to people outside of our fields. There's a lot of talk about "chemophobia" and just general fear of scientific evidence nowadays. I don't know how true that is, but I think there are a lot of people who are curious about science, but don't have a great way to connect to it. Maybe they loved science in high school, but they got turned off by the math involved. Or maybe they never liked science in school, but now they're hearing cool stuff about the Higgs Boson, and going to Mars, and sequencing genomes... and they want in! We've got to let people in on the excitement that we all feel for what we do.
We've got to let people in on the excitement that we all feel for what we do."
VMB: My free time right now is mostly comics-related! I also enjoy playing board games and video games with friends.
BPC: Where do you see yourself in 20 years?
VMB: I see myself as a lifelong learner. I'd like to keep doing research, and hopefully continue improving the communication of technical science to the general public.
Check out a sneak peak of her comic below. You can also buy the comic here.