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Researchers as comic book heroes: Neurotechnologists had their lectures graphically recorded


Accompanying science graphically


From 28 June to 30 June 2017 the International BrainLinks-BrainTools Conference took place at the Forum Merzhausen. Researchers from all over the world discussed questions relating to brain-machine interfaces. These are the basis for medical-technical applications such as the treatment of Parkinson's disease, epilepsy, depression or the development of prosthetics. In addition to discussions and exciting lectures, there was also a small special feature at the conference: Veronika Mischitz, illustrator and comic-strip artist with a focus on science communication, accompanied this event for BrainLinks-BrainTools graphically. But what exactly did she do?! And how does one begin to bring brain implants and computer-aided learning to paper? Seven questions to the illustrator.

You have visualized the keynote lectures during the BrainLinks-Braintools conference. How exactly does one have to imagine that?

My work could be called "graphic recording". I observe and record live in pictures and text what is said at the event. In addition, I work out coherences and refine the statements visually, so that they remain comprehensible  even in retrospect in their complexity. Occasionally I comment or add some humor. Especially at conferences, such a "graphic recording" invites to a new way of dealing with scientific topics. I work quite simply with pen and paper. I prepare myself in terms of content, but the drawings are immediate, sketchy and spontaneous. In this way, I can react quickly to events and, for example, capture moods and reactions. If desired, I can digitally process the drawings afterwards - as for example for BrainLinks-BrainTools. This resulted in additional material for the conference catalogue and the website.

Some of the topics of such a conference are already very specific. Do you always get access to the lecture? Isn't there a lot of creative pressure?

I get access to the topic mainly through extensive preparation. The scientific lectures in particular are so complex, comprehensive and detailed that they cannot be mastered without preliminary work. So I research the topic and think about where I can approach it visually. This allows me to create a timetable that guides me through the wealth of information I want to graphically implement.
After 10 years of work experience, I am fortunately able to handle creative pressure well. Over time, I have developed a repertoire and fixed strategies that will help me beyond "hangers" - especially under time pressure.

And what should your comic strip ideally do to the viewer?!

First of all he should address and entertain him. I want to tell him a story with scientific content. When people write to me or talk to me about exhibitions thathave no clue of physics or math, but have now seen through the comic strip that this is actually quite exciting, then for me it's like a knight's accolade. That's exactly what I want for all comics and topics!

Do comics and science actually fit together?

Absolutely! Comics are an excellent medium for conveying scientific content. There is a certain lightness in them. Comics make it easier for interested people - regardless of their scientific background - to access scientific topics. The latter are communicated at eye level without having to compromise on content.

So science is too serious?

No no! I rather have the impression that science must always worry a little about its legitimacy. Especially the sense and purpose of basic research is sometimes very difficult to convey. On the other hand, a great deal of sentiment is being created against science and research and fear is being fueled. You think very carefully about how to present yourself to the outside world. But it is precisely in recent years that I have experienced a great deal of interest on the part of science in breaking new ground in communication. And comic strip formats and visualizations are in great demand at the moment.

How about a professor publishing his next publication as Graphic Novel?!

Oh, there are already some remarkable publications in comic format. In Germany, for example, Alexandra Hamann and Reinhold Leinfelder have published "The Great Transformation" on the subject of climate change and "The Anthropocene Kitchen". Nick Sousanis published his dissertation "Unflattening" in comic form and was very successful. In the field of brain research there is the Graphic Novel "Neuroscience" by Dr. Hana Roš and Dr. Matteo Farinella. Just to name a few examples. Of course, this can be even more than that, of course.

You have already worked on a number of very different projects. Is there something that always stays the same?! And something that made the BrainLinks-Braintools conference special?

What remains the same is the challenge to work out a new scientific topic, to understand it and to make it an exciting story. I learn something new with every comic book, every theme, every project. It's always like this and at the same time the best thing about my job. I myself studied biology in Freiburg. And it was really great to return to my old university after 10 years with a completely new approach. I also liked the interdisciplinary nature of the event. Despite the neurobiological focus, topics such as philosophy, communication and art were also addressed. The open and positive reaction of the "scientific world" to the graphic recording was of course also nice and shows me that there is a lot of potential in this combination.

Veronika Mischitz is a graduate biologist and works full-time as a freelance illustrator and comic-strip artist. She became known with "Klar Soweit?", a science comic, which she has been designing and drawing monthly for the Helmholtz Association since 2014.  Since then, she has been involved in a large number of projects dealing with the communication of knowledge about graphic design. For example, at "Wissensbuffet","Suddenly Knowledge" and "Science in Dialogue". More about Veronika Mischitz and her work can be found here and here.

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