Stem Cell Research in Colourful Pictures

(September 8th, 2015) Do you find it hard to explain your research to your non-biologist family and friends? If so, and you happen to study stem cells, there’s a solution: An entertaining and informative comic book, written by a Portuguese researcher.

On hearing the word ‘Science’, most people think of a person in a white lab coat surrounded by beakers with colourful solutions or lots of mice, whose fate it is to be dissected. But being a scientist also means communicating with students, government or funding agency representatives and… the greater PUBLIC, of course. João Ramalho-Santos, associate professor at the University of Coimbra, Portugal, found a perfect way to acquaint all above-mentioned society groups with stem cell research - via comics.

“A Stem Cell Adventure” is a free online comic book written by João Ramalho-Santos and illustrated by André Caetano. It is part of a bigger science communication project initiated by researchers at the Center for Neuroscience and Cell Biology of the University of Coimbra and funded by the Compete project from Ciência Viva, the Portuguese science communication agency. The project is aimed at different layers of the population (from students to the general public) and includes animations, videos, interviews and books about stem cell research. The project’s success has already been documented in PLoS One: “I Want More and Better Cells! – An Outreach Project about Stem Cells and Its Impact on the General Population”.

From the first page of this flipbook on, Ramalho-Santos describes difficult scientific concepts using comparisons to daily human life events. This ensures that the reader does not need a scientific background. As a result of realistic image depictions and concise explanations, the flipbook has been very popular since its publication on 31st July 2015. “As part of my teaching and outreach activities, you have to come up with ways to explain things to all sorts of different publics, from the usual exercise of ‘explaining your project as if you were talking to your grandmother’ to highly informed and critical graduate students,” says Ramalho-Santos.

The author also adds, “I worried about accuracy, balancing science with allegory and avoiding hyperbole. As member of the Portuguese Ethics Council for the Life Sciences, I made sure that stem cells were accurately represented and that no non-validated speculative uses were described, except in stating that they were exactly that. The road to clinical applications was described as difficult and the ethics of using embryos mentioned - and the fact that ethics are not universal (science, hopefully, is). I also made sure to note that, in many cases, stem cells are proposed to replace animal use in testing protocols.

“The joy of seeing concepts come to life, being humble and willing to change for the better throughout, not taking things for granted, and always questioning the efficiency of what is done are the aspects I valued most in making ‘A Stem Cell Adventure’, and would certainly value in any other science communication projects, whether they involve comics or not,” concludes João Ramalho-Santos.

Nadejda Capatina

Image from: A Stem Cell Adventure

Last Changes: 10.13.2015