At the Pier 17 Science Studio, we’re often on the lookout for inspiring science communications work. Often, it’s large-scale public engagement projects, exhibitions, or tours. But sometimes science communication insights can come from smaller initiatives fueled by individual passions.
We discovered the work of the scientists and artists “Daisy and Chloé” — Daisy Hessenberger and Chloé Schmidt — the science communication duo behind the website Pineapples and Whales. Daisy earned a PhD in genetics from the University of Cambridge and is currently based in Lausanne. Chloé has a Masters in biology from the University of Lausanne, now based in Canada. With a shared interest in science and drawing, they launched the blog together in March 2017. The site is a passion project specializing in infographics about science, presented in accessible, friendly language surrounded by funny, whimsical drawings.
The pair is a two-person science communications operation. They’ve curated Twitter feeds and share their work on Instagram. Chloé has created a coloring book for scientists, and the website has a “laboratory” where they share science communication musings and other “things that don’t fit into the infographic format — if you want to knit your science, that’s the place to do it.” (Most recently, the site has an excellent post about the paradox of “storytelling” for scientists).
A signature of their work is that it shares stories about scientific discoveries, but also stories of how the scientists got to them. “We saw that science communication is often far removed from the actual research,” Daisy said. “But there’s a lot of story in the original research. How scientists think, how they criticize, how they peer review. We wanted that to come across more in science communication.”
We spoke to the two for some advice on how to stay true to the process of science while engaging audiences in a playful, visual way. Here’s what they had to say.
Tell a small story well
It’s tempting to tie your science to grand, compelling social narratives — but sometimes science is about small steps that get lost if you zoom out too far.
“In science communication, it can seem like there are always the same narratives depending on which field you’re looking at. In health, [it seems like] everyone is always talking about cancer research; in ecology, a lot of it is about conservation,” said Chloé. “We think the mission of the science can get lost. If you have research focused on one tiny ant species and you try to ask “how does that fix global warming,” you lose the story.”
Thinking about what makes the small story compelling, Chloé and Daisy are good at staying focused on the research at hand. Stories are allowed to be small, personal, and quirky.
“We start out asking ‘what’s the problem?’ but at a smaller scale than ‘saving the world,’” she said. “Methods might be left out because they’re “too science-ey,” but we like to break them down and make them understandable. Then at the end, we give a realistic take-home message, something that makes the work cool in its own right.”
Sometimes research has an obvious image that jumps out for easy communication.
“I found a paper about dolphins eating octopuses in a really specific way, and I just knew it would make a really amazing comic,” said Chloé. “It was just a visual thing — you really want to see a dolphin shredding on an octopus!”
Finding a visual side to your science is not always so clear. That’s why it can be important to focus on the narrative of your research, which can be translated into something you can share.
“I think for researchers, you don’t want to come up with a narrative while writing a paper,” Chloé said. “It’s more about always having your own story in mind across all of your work. Once you have a story, you can have a drawing.”
Explore the process
Facts are important, but they don’t always connect with an audience. Emotions are the glue that tie science facts to meaning. When research is published, it’s an opportunity to tell the story behind the results: the vision, curiosity, and exploration required for successful science. In science communication, it helps the audience connect to the results if you show the process of discovery.
“My PhD was very theoretical, tiny RNA molecules… really dry,” said Daisy. “But it’s emotional to be putting gels into a UV box, praying that there is something on that gel when [the image]it comes out. That’s why we go back to the original research — there’s a lot lost between the experiment, to a publication, to the science communication. We wanted to capture the meat of the science that’s there, that carries the emotion.”
Daisy suggests that scientists ask themselves: What do you care about in your experiments? “Those are the emotions you can use in science communication, and science art.”
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