Turning Science into Stories

JKX Comics illustrates vital concepts for nonscientists.

Panel from comic, "Lena and the Hunt for Toms"

Lena and the Hunt for Toms

Why is a blood cell studying in a library? Why are microbes ordering food in a restaurant? Why is a ribosome getting psychoanalyzed on a therapist’s couch?

These are images from JKX Comics, illustrating scientific concepts for nonscientists. In 15 comics, Jaye Gardiner PhD’17, Kelly Montgomery MS’16, and Khoa Tran PhD’18 use storytelling skills to explain UW–Madison research on cancer, HIV, and the big bang, among other topics. The whole collection is available for free online, to the delight of parents, middle school teachers, and science fans everywhere.

Panel from comic, "You Are What You Eat"

You Are What You Eat

Gardiner, Montgomery, and Tran met in Science and Medicine Graduate Research Scholars, a UW fellowship program for underrepresented grad students. In 2015, they hatched the idea of using comics to promote scientific literacy, refining their concept in weekly sessions at the Library Cafe & Bar near campus. As scientists — not artists or writers — they had a lot to learn.

“Growing up, we all loved the Sunday comics,” Tran says. “But storytelling was new to us, so it took a year of trial and error to create our first project.”

Panel from comic, "Longitudinal Effects of Psychotherapy with Transgender Clients"

Longitudinal Effects of Psychotherapy with Transgender Clients

The trio got a break by winning the UW’s Arts Business Competition, which rewards innovative ideas from arts entrepreneurs. They used the funding to collaborate with UW scientists and other artists on a set of seven comics, showcasing the finished products in a public event at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery. Kids had a chance to meet the researchers featured in the comics and dream about their own careers in science.

The JKX founders are now scattered across the country, Montgomery as a PhD student and Gardiner and Tran as postdoctoral fellows. But they continue to work on new comics, as well as an anthology of their UW projects. They plan to donate copies of the anthology to underserved children in the Madison area through the Madison Reading Project.

“It will help them learn about the important research happening at the university right down the street,” Tran says.

Published in the Winter 2020 issue


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