“The goal was to make academic knowledge accessible in a fun and engaging format”, says Delia Dumitrica, assistant professor at the ESHCC. The cartoons are based on research projects by scholars from the Young Erasmus Academy (YEA), a network of young scholars across all faculties. Dumitrica initiated the pilot-project Visual Storytelling for Knowledge Utilization as a member of the YEA. The cartoons can be viewed as online publications, in presentations and via social media.

PhD Comics

Delia Dumitrica – Roy Borghouts
Delia Dumitrica Image credit: Roy Borghouts

“We want to show that scientific research makes a contribution to society at large”, explains Dumitrica. “Our university emphasises societal impact. It’s one of the pillars of the university’s new strategy. With these cartoons our goal was to reach the general public, people outside the scholarly community, to arouse their interest in research.” When she was a student herself, Dumitrica was a big consumer of PhD Comics. The series served as an inspiration for this project: “They are very funny and popular on Facebook.”

The project resulted in six cartoons, representing six different research projects over a variety of topics. For example, the links between using food to soothe a distressed infant and later obesity, or the possible confirmation of racial stereotypes in sports programmes on television (featuring two figures based on famous Dutch sport commentators Johan Derksen and René van der Gijp).

cartoon YEA – football stereotype

“The criteria for participation were that the papers had been published recently and that they had to be used in public events like in lectures or conferences”, says Dumitrica. After finding her candidates, she approached Danielle Ceulemans from Sticky Visuals, a visual communication studio, to manage the translation process, from research paper to easily understandable cartoon.

Cartoons and complexities

“The cartoons had to be recognisable to a wide audience”, Ceulemans explains. She interviewed each of the YEA scholars for an hour and passed on the main findings and arguments to the cartoonist, who in turn crafted the ideas into crisp and clear illustrations, avoiding academic jargon. During this process many complexities and sensitivities needed to be taken into account. Ceulemans uses the example of an oblivious farmer applying massive amounts of pesticides, based on research by Alessandra Arcuri, professor of international law, and theoretical philosopher Yogi Hale Hendlin.

cartoon YEA – pesticide 2

“The pesticide product manual states that the product is safe, but it turns out that it isn’t safe in large quantities”, says Ceulemans. “I told the cartoonist: ‘Make sure that everything looks wet and soaked’. Unaware of the harmful consequences, the farmer in the first two panels drowns his land with a poisonous pesticide. Due to the over-exaggeration and his obliviousness, it looked funny to me.” However, the cartoons couldn’t be published in this format. Ceulemans: “Because of the sensitivity of the research, the nuances, and possibly claims of millions of euros behind this product, we had to leave out these comic elements.” In the final version (see the first cartoon at the top), the farmer is portrayed as being less ignorant and the exaggerations were removed.

Another sensitivity is about how to portray people. One of the cartoons was about the link between using food to soothe a distressed infant and later obesity, based on research by child psychologist Pauline Jansen. To get the message over, the child should look chubby. But in the first draft, the child was too skinny. Jansen: “The cartoon should only be slightly exaggerating, so that it elicits discussion whilst not being offensive.”

cartoon YEA – obesity 2

She continues: “There was also a discussion about the presentation of the parents of the chubby child: the mum who used food to soothe was first depicted as from an ethnic minority – one of the findings was indeed that these mothers tend to use this feeding strategy relatively often. However, a message on a sensitive topic like this is soon interpreted as stigmatising and should be given more context to avoid this.”

cartoon YEA – obesity

Institutional help

Once the process of creating the cartoons was finished, actually reaching non-academics proved to be more challenging than Dumitrica initially thought: “We considered approaching a newspaper to ask whether they would to publish one cartoon on influenza research. But it proved very difficult. For scholars, spreading research is a box that we don’t often unpack.”

cartoon YEA – influenza

If the YEA considers the project a success, they will run it next year, but only after an evaluation. Dumitrica: “Academics juggle doing research with teaching commitments and service to the university. If we want to include large-scale knowledge distribution, we might need some additional institutional help.”