Scientists often struggle to explain their research to nonscientists, whether it’s at a cocktail party, on an airplane, or when speaking to a journalist. For Julie Rorrer, the struggle began with a classroom full of third graders.
Rorrer, a chemical engineering graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, volunteers for the Bay Area Scientists in Schools program, in which scientists and engineers teach free, in-class science lessons to students in and around San Francisco. Volunteers talk about their research when they introduce themselves to the students.
Rorrer’s solution was to put pencil to paper and create a graphic interpretation of her first published research paper on converting plant waste into sustainable fuels. Buoyed by the response, she started to illustrate her friends’ research projects, and she reached out to graduate students who have an artistic bent to draw their own research. The result of all that doodling is Color Me Ph.D., a 16-page coloring book that’s free to download at colormephd.org.
A simple explanation of the illustrated research accompanies each coloring page, along with a sketch of the scientist whose work is featured. The artwork includes a pun-filled page about a lithium-ion lion and computer-generated zeolites.
Color Me Ph.D. has been well received by Rorrer’s friends and colleagues since she posted it online in October. She’s now working on volume 2. Scientists who want to have their research turned into a coloring page can fill out an application on the ColorMePhD website.
“I squeeze in Color Me Ph.D.whenever I can. If I’m in the lab late waiting for a reaction, I can pull out a notebook and doodle,” she tells Newscripts. “I feel like in graduate school you make time for things that you are passionate about.”
If Sidney Harris is any example, you don’t need to be an expert in science to draw about it. While Harris’s subjects include politics and crime (he says his best stuff was published in Playboy), he’s best known for his scientific cartoons, which have been printed in American Scientist, Discover, and the defunct American Chemical Society magazine Today’s Chemist at Work. His most recent book, Eureka! Details to Follow, published late last year and available on Amazon, is devoted to chemistry cartoons.
“I really am not knowledgeable in science,” Harris confesses to Newscripts. “I seem to be able to fake it.” The 85-year-old estimates he’s drawn more than 35,000 cartoons since he began freelancing in 1955.
Harris started his science scribblings in the 1970s, when he queried Jane Olson, the editor of American Scientist, about using his cartoons. “For more than 40 years I was sending cartoons to them every couple of weeks,” Harris recalls. “They’d buy some and reject most, so I have hundreds and hundreds of cartoons on various subjects.”
This year, Harris is providing a dozen cartoons for ACS local sections to reprint in their newsletters or with their monthly website announcements. The project is funded by the ACS Technical Division Innovative Project Grant Program and hosted by the Division of the History of Chemistry.
The division will also hold a contest in which ACS members can submit one original cartoon caption. Harris will draw a cartoon based on the winning caption, and the grand-prize winner will receive the original cartoon. The runner-up will receive an autographed copy of one of Harris’s most famous cartoons. Details can be found at acshist.scs.illinois.edu/index.php.
Bethany Halford wrote this week’s column. Please send comments and suggestions to email@example.com.
CORRECTION: On Jan. 7, 2019, this story was updated to correct the name of the grant program funding the use of Harris's cartoons.