Scientist amber Kreleger and illustrator Judith Carnaby (Photo: David St George)

‘So many wonderful ways of telling the story’: reflections on Drawing Science

A group of 30 researchers and illustrators joined Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris for the Drawing Science workshop. Here’s what they learned.

Last month The Spinoff and the Science Media Centre hosted Drawing Science. Supported by NZ on Air, the workshop stemmed from the collaboration between Toby Morris and Dr Siouxsie Wiles that began during the early weeks of the Covid-19 outbreak and quickly went global. Toby and Siouxsie shared what they’d learned over the process with the illustrators and researchers at Drawing Science.

At the end of a day packed with presentations, discussions and practical exercises, we asked the participants: how did it go?

Siouxsie Wiles: There’s no magic formula

The use of illustration has been really amazing in helping people understand all sorts of things about the pandemic. The question is: can we replicate that for other things? The idea was to bring together a team of illustrators and scientists and other researchers and see if any new potential collaborations are sparked.

We know there’s massive interest from both researchers and illustrators in the type of collaboration that Toby and I have had. It’s been amazing listening to the different researchers talk about the things they want to communicate, and then to hear from the illustrators about how excited they are about being involved in communicating research to the wider public.

As a scientist, I’ve strongly felt that our research does not end with a scientific article being produced. That’s just communicating your work to other scientists. It’s really important that other people find out about things, and who that is depends on what the research is. There are lots of challenges we face, and we need people to understand those challenges, and illustration is one of the great ways that we can communicate to different audiences.

There is no magic formula. It’s been about trust and relationships. Toby and I had never met before we started working together, but I had admired his work, and he’d obviously admired my work, and so what started for us was this trust and acknowledgement of each other’s expertise. So that’s what we wanted to communicate a little bit today, and then have an opportunity for people to start meeting each other, and start talking about what their interests are. We’ve got lots of illustrators who are interested in particular social issues or research issues, and we’ve got researchers who work in those areas – can we bring them together?

Dr Siouxsie Wiles is a microbiologist at the University of Auckland, a science communicator and New Zealander of the Year

Toby and Siouxsie, by Kwok Yi Lee (Photo: David St George)

Toby Morris: The power of illustration to explain complicated things

I’ve always been a big believer in the power of illustration to explain complicated things, and the success that Siouxsie and I have had in the last year has been really validating in that way. It made me feel like there’d be lots of other people that a) have really important messages to explain and b) are really good at illustrating things in a way that makes sense to people. So I’m really happy that we have the opportunity to share some of the things we’ve learnt over the last year in a way that can help other people explain what they need to explain.

Today has been really exciting. We’ve seen a diverse range of styles, skills and levels of experience. There are some young illustrators, and some really experienced veteran illustrators who I look up to. I feel very lucky to have put everybody in a room together. It’s exciting. I can’t wait to see what comes out of it.

Illustration is as much about drawing as it is about communication. It’s telling a story and a lot of the time, you’re acting as a translator. You’re taking some information and figuring out what it is that people need to know about it. It’s about getting across what the facts of the thing are, as well as why it matters – the feelings of it as much as the facts of it. The last year, for all of us, hasn’t played out in a way we would’ve thought. The path that’s opened up for me, in terms of doing science communications, is pretty new and unexpected, but exciting too. The more I go down it, the more opportunities open up.

Toby Morris is an illustrator, writer and creative director of The Spinoff

Drawing Science illustration

Illustration: Toby Morris

Dacia Herbulock: We need to invest time and energy

When I saw the work that Siouxsie and Toby have been doing, I had the sense that there’s incredible potential to seed more of these partnerships. There’s something unique about what they’re doing, but there has been such an outpouring of interest from the research community, and from the artists involved, that it’s clear a lot more of this kind of working together would have a massive impact. There are so many incredible kinds of research that people struggle to picture. Maybe explaining it with words is difficult, but an image can bring together a concept and when you see it clearly laid out and things just snap into focus, it’s amazing.

I’ve been going around and eavesdropping on some of these conversations, and it’s the little gems that you hear – they’re not conversations I would be hearing any other time. I talk to scientists every day, and there’s something different going on in the room.

We need to invest time and energy in the next generation of science communicators – getting people to start thinking about this well in advance of when it’s going to be needed. There’s so much potential that’s untapped, and what we’d like from today is to get researchers thinking before they start, not at the end once they’ve finished a piece of research. It’s about thinking how can we bring people in and start talking about how we’re going to communicate this, who are we going to reach out to, and how to do it in a way that is actually going to connect with the people who benefit from this work.

Dacia Herbulock is director of the NZ Science Media Centre

Toby Morris and Siouxsie Wiles share some wisdom (Photo: David St George)

Ciléin Kearns: This is about learning from each other

It’s really lovely to meet scientists outside of healthcare and in other areas who are really passionate about how we can use visuals and comics and art in general to communicate science, and engage with the people our science is meant to help.

From the creative side, there are lots of artists who are interested and involved in this area already. This is about starting those relationships so that you’re not working in a vacuum, and learning from each other. That goes from a technical perspective – how does Toby build his comics and work with larger team? – right down to an infinite number of cool things. It’s been really lovely seeing Toby and Siouxsie’s collaborations – they’ve been so public and so visible, but that’s the end result. It’s been lovely hearing about the work behind the scenes. Even the stresses, to see they’re just like every one of us.

Ciléin Kearns is a medical illustrator and senior clinical research fellow

The crew (Photo: David St George)

Hemakumar Devan: I’m going to involve illustrators as part of the research team

I’m amazed at the quality of the work that illustrators can create. I think that’s worth more than a thousand words in a scientific journal. I’m all for translating knowledge from research to the public and to the people who are living with health conditions. I see illustration as a powerful tool to transform that knowledge, so I think the workshop today has been a great validation to that belief, and it’s made me advocate more for illustrators as part of the research team.

I came with an idea and now I’m going back with five different versions of how it can be communicated, which is so fascinating. As a researcher and a clinician, I feel that it challenges us to do more in terms of meaningfully engaging with illustrators as part of our work. Looking forward, I’m going to involve illustrators as part of the research term right at the beginning of the journey and not necessarily at the end of the journey, so that they are experts in their own right in terms of transferring that knowledge. I’m really looking forward to working with illustrators in the future.

Hemakumar Devan is a research fellow and pain management physiotherapist

Pepper Raccoon: It’s about creating something emotive

It’s the most beautiful job in the world, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I get to explain and communicate things in a visual way, to help people fall in love with concepts and grow people’s understanding of topics. Just the diversity of things that people are studying, it’s incredible. I’m so excited to learn about someone who’s studying groundwater and someone who’s studying invasive weeds. And figuring out that everyone’s kind of got the same problem – they just want to reach people in their hearts, and a lot of what they have is just data and information. It would be nice if they can create something emotive and I love the idea of being able to contribute to that and make the real world better for everybody.

It empowers us as illustrators to be available for them in a way we couldn’t before where we actually have insight into what their concerns are. We know them now, we’re connected with all these different organisations that we can talk to about the value of art or communication in science. Siouxsie’s awesome, I just thought she was a huge inspiration. I love how many wāhine toa are here today, making sure we stand up for a better world.

Pepper Raccoon is a digital and ink illustrator

Waikaremoana Waitoki and Sereana Naepi (Photo: David St George)

Sereana Naepi: If we want the public to understand our science, we have to meet them halfway

I think a lot of the work I do can be quite confrontational for people. And I really enjoy how artists can take something that can be quite confrontational and turn it into a discussion point. The use of artists in research is increasingly important and we saw that with Covid-19 – if we want the public to understand our science, we have to meet them halfway. And sometimes that means thinking about different ways to say the same ideas. I love how artists can take really complex social science theories and turn them into this beautiful image that starts discussion as opposed to making people defensive.

I was talking to an artist today and was like “I have a big project and I’d like to tell this big story” and she said, “why don’t you take these small moments and weave them into a huge story?” I hadn’t really thought about that – that I could just capture small moments in my research and that they could tell an overall story.

I think being in the room with people who also think that art has a space in science is really cool. You don’t have to convince anyone here. We’re all really keen on the idea of seeing more artists and scientists working together. That was really cool.

Sereana Naepi is a sociology lecturer at the University of Auckland

Waikaremoana Waitoki: So many wonderful ways of telling the story

What I liked about today is that there is a pool of amazing illustrators. I’ve always found this to be a bit hard, to find illustrators. I now know that there’s committed, experienced, amazing illustrators who can help me translate my research into a format that the people I work with can understand and want to read. There are just so many wonderful ways of telling the story.

Waikaremoana Waitoki is a clinical psychologist and senior lecturer at the University of Waikato

The above have been edited for clarity and brevity




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