What if you could catch up on your peer-reviewed literature reading in info-graphics? In this post, I've interviewed Viputheshwar Sitaraman, a freshman and Flinn Scholar at the University of Arizona and creator of the unique science blog Draw Science. Vip is a bio student by day, a lab rat during the afternoons, a web-based entrepreneur by night, and a minimalist designer even later into the twilight hours. He says he is passionate about indie science, reforming science communication, specialized education and open science. I find his approach to research blogging fascinating, so I've asked him to talk about it below!
Me: Can you tell me a bit about yourself and how you got into science blogging?
Vip: I’ve been an independent researcher working on zinc finger applications at the Biodesign Institute at ASU up until this year, when I moved to the University of Arizona BIO5 Institute. Currently, I’m a freshman attending the Honors College at the University of Arizona under the generous Flinn Scholarship. When I was initially exploring research, I always found it tedious to read the traditional scientific journal article. Don’t get me wrong, they’re packed with useful information. But as a layperson (at the time), I felt like it is almost impossible to read fresh-from-the-laboratory research without dedicating your life to the field. So I decided to fix it.
Me: Your science blog is an experiment it seems in translating science research articles into infographics. Can you tell me how this came to be? How did you get the idea to do this? What motivated you to use infographics to do research blogging?
As a student, I always felt like the diagrams in a biology textbook were exponentially more useful than the textual explanation. I realized I could use my graphic design skills to apply the same principle to journal articles: translate long, boring blocks of text and sparsely explained data/figures into a concise, simple picture that any person could read. Thus Draw Science was born. I realized this was an entirely new way to approach science communication: we can connect laypeople to real research—from revolutionary applied science to small steps in basic science—without the hype and loss of content of traditional journalism.
Me: How long have you been blogging in this way? Has your approach changed over time?
I started Draw Science five months ago. Initially, I was forced to focus on primarily biology-related topics, but I’ve diversified a lot as people have started suggest articles via the Blogger Form. Now I cover everything from physics to psychology to problems in research funding.
Me: How do you decide what research articles to blog about? Do they have to be visually oriented?
Generally, I just choose anything that would interest the general public. Even with basic science, if I can somehow connect the research to the average person’s life, they’ll care. I’ve had some challenging posts that were difficult to visualize. However, it’s more about conveying as much information with as little jargon.
Me: Tell me a bit more about the graphics. What goes into making them? How do you know what to include in the graphic? How long do the graphics take to create?
The average infographic only takes me one to two hours to create. Selecting the article is often more difficult than actually visualizing it. It comes down to choosing in between the most sensational article and the most scientifically relevant article. Choosing new, trending research comes with the benefit of high traffic, but at the risk of falling into the pitfall of mainstream media: presenting only sensationalized, over-simplified research. So when I do choose a trending topic (ie. the EBOLA virus), I try to present more of the scientific basis (ie. monoclonal antibody therapy) for the big claim (ie. “We can cure EBOLAV”).
Once I choose the article, I tend to organize the graphic through a linear, vertical progression—but I use this organization very loosely. It usually goes from top to bottom: problem, background, data, and conclusion. I really like this set-up because it promotes curiosity in the reader within the bounds of scientific method: the audience gets to travel with the scientist through the process of discovery and understanding.
Me: How do you think artistic abilities and design principles can help science communication?
Nothing is as ugly as the average display board at a conference poster session. In fact, an entire website is dedicated to telling scientists how to—crudely speaking—make science beautiful: Better Posters.
The entire problem with science communication is that the way we present science is boring. Nobody wants to read big blocks of text full of big words and a disorganized array of unexplained figures and data. That brings me full circle back to the textbook analogy: why present your methods in a giant flowchart or block paragraph, when the entire experiment can be explained in one huge pictograph? Using diagrams more and jargon less is the key to science communication and accordingly, scientists probably need to have an eye for design.
Me: Do you have a plan for your blog in the future?
Apart from continuing weekly infographics, I want to start an infographic-based journal or conference. Scientists will have their articles presented in a bi-monthly issue entirely consisting of infographics representing their research.
Having recently connected with the indie science movement, I’ve come to realize that the key to successful independent research is support from the general public. This means that good outreach—and respectfully, good science communication—is vital. Accordingly, we need to create a venue to communicate with laypeople. Journals connect scientists with scientists. Draw Science will connect scientists with the public.