Drawn Together: The Rise of #sciart

The final comic produced in collaboration between UO student Page Biersdorff and Dr. Tien Tien Yu. Biersdorff created the comic to explain Dr. Yu’s work with dark matter and the Sensei detector so that viewers can engage with the art with any panel.

By Ellen Israel

Jan. 7, 2022

Dr. Tien Tien Yu was chatting with a colleague over coffee when her passion for science and love of art coalesced.

Yu, a physicist and dark matter expert, and Lewis Taylor, communications director for the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation at the University of Oregon, were bonding over their experiences participating in workshops with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. After Yu mentioned she had a burgeoning interest in 2D art, Taylor brought up the University of Oregon’s Comics Studies Program.

Growing up, Yu was interested in all kinds of art forms. She enrolled in drawing, photography, and sculpture classes while she was in high school. But as she grew older, she found she didn’t have as much time for her beloved hobbies.

The Comics Studies Program seemed like the perfect way to crystallize her two passions into one.

Yu contacted Dr. Ben Saunders and Dr. Katherine Kelp-Stebbins, Director and Associate Director of the      Comics Studies Program respectively. Not long after that, the Science Comics Initiative was born.

“Thinking back on it, it was pretty lucky it came together so well,” said Yu.

The Initiative, which began in the spring term of 2020, pairs undergraduate artists with University of Oregon scientists to create comics about their research. So far, the program has produced eight comics, covering topics ranging from dark matter to the effects of psychedelics on serotonin.

The Science and Comics Initiative at the University of Oregon is one piece in a larger, ever-growing #sciart puzzle.

Science art, or #sciart as it’s called on social media, is exactly what it sounds like: the fusion of science and art in the form of paintings, comics, performance art, audio projects — anything that seeks to translate scientific concepts through a creative lens.

In the United States, the #sciart phenomenon has increasingly yielded programs that facilitate collaborations between scientists and artists, much like the University of Oregon’s Science Comics Initiative.

“Back in the day, science and art were not separate,” said Abrian Curington, an artist who participated in an artist-in-residence program with the Schmidt Ocean Institute based in Palo Alto, Calif. The Schmidt Ocean Institute is a nonprofit organization founded by former Google executive Eric Schmidt. The organization lends its research vessel, the Falkor, to groups of scientists performing maritime studies.

As a Schmidt Ocean Institute artist-at-sea, Curington accompanied a team of scientists while they combed through the silt of the ocean floor in search of meteorites. She created a map of the voyage during the two-week research cruise.

Research institutions and universities nationwide are offering more and more artist-in-residence programs.

The SETI Institute, a nonprofit that branched off from NASA to focus on the search for extraterrestrial life, has an artist-in-residence program called SETI AIR. Established in 2013, the program connects artists of all disciplines with SETI researchers.

In one recent SETI AIR collaboration, sound artist Felipe Perez Santiago created the Earthling Project, which collects songs from people around the world through a phone app. The songs are then compiled so they can be rocketed off into space.

Bettina Forget, director of the SETI AIR program, said collaborations between the arts and sciences have the power to break down perceived barriers between the disciplines.

“I find that art that makes a connection to science is more open and more democratic because you reach a larger audience. Because you reach all these people who are interested in science,” said Forget. “And also, I got a lot of people who came for the art and then sort of accidentally learned about all the science.”

Other #sciart projects aim to demystify science as an institution.

JKX Comics, founded in 2015 by then-University of Wisconsin-Madison Ph.D. students Khoa Tran, Jaye Gardiner and Kelly Montgomery, achieves this feat by publishing comics about University scientists’ research. When the trio founded the online publishing company, they acted as both science consultants and comic artists. They met up every week at a local bar to teach themselves the foundations of art and comics.

The three scientists took their project a step further with Gaining STEAM, a crowdfunded comic anthology that facilitated collaborations between local artists and University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers from a range of disciplines.

Gaining STEAM’s comics covered topics like psychology and astrology. The decision to include subject matter beyond their own realm of expertise was purposeful, as the JKX founders wanted Gaining STEAM to communicate the incredible breadth and diversity of scientific research.

“I think the incorporation of different artists with the different scientists highlights that diversity,” said Tran.

Gaining STEAM’s Kickstarter campaign funded the publication of an anthology containing eight science comics.

Kelp-Stebbins and Yu, who now act as co-directors of the Science Comics Initiative, said they hope to extend the reach of the Science Comics Initiative by publishing their comics in a book or displaying them in an art exhibit.

Yu acknowledged that science can be unwelcoming to outsiders. Scientific findings are often presented in research papers or at presentations, which can be intimidating to non-scientists.

Despite these barriers, public trust in scientists in the U.S. is at its highest level since 1987. It may not seem that way with the abundance of misinformation and vitriol regarding the COVID-19 pandemic online and in the news, but it’s true — people trust scientists.

Disregard for coronavirus safety measures can be attributed to other factors. Recent studies by the Pew Research Center have found trust in news media and the federal government is on the decline.

Perhaps #sciart can help improve public messaging surrounding coronavirus-preventative measures by allowing researchers to speak directly to the public in an accessible and engaging way.

Yu said that science comics, and by extension #sciart, can help everyone embrace their curiosity without needing to study up beforehand.

“You know,” she said, “we’re all scientists at some level. We all practice science in our day-to-day life.”