“Some Cartoons are Faithful Biography”

(September 29th, 2016) Nik Papageorgiou, the creator of the Upturned Microscope talks to Lab Times about how too much time on his hands led to the development of a comic strip now enjoyed by many. 

A man of many “hats”, Nik Papageorgiou calls himself a science writer, cartoonist and a novelist. Currently based at the École Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland, the science writer spends his time writing about the university's latest discoveries, but still finds the opportunity to sketch another comic strip or scribble a few more lines in his latest novel. 

How did your interest in science started?

When I was little, I had a big interest in documentaries with Jacques Cousteau, and scuba diving. I was fascinated by animals, especially animals that lived in the ocean, and I went to study biology with the purpose of pursuing a career in oceanography. But, at the same time, I always had a very big interest in human biology. I decided to move to human physiology and then did a Masters in pharmacology. 

What made you decide to move to science writing?

I would like to say that me and academic research split mutually, but I know in my heart that's a lie. After my PhD, I committed career suicide because I followed it with a postdoc outside of my field of research. My field was in Alzheimer's disease and I took a postdoc on cancer epigenetics. After that, it was very difficult to pursue a particular field – and my postdoc was over and I’m going ‘Now what?’ 

To be honest, I don’t think I was ever going to win a Nobel Prize or ever have much of a tremendous future in academia. So, I was in Cambridge (UK), which can be quite unforgiving for scientists given that is one of the UK's research Meccas – and I really didn't have a CV that would ever propel me to the upper echelons of research. I was tired of being in the lab, my whole career had become a never-ending series of cytotoxic assays and cell viability assays; I was tired of killing cells! 

I got a job with a medical writing agency in Cambridge, but soon after, my wife, who is a still living the research dream, got a job in Switzerland. I wanted to follow her, and it took me about 6 months to find an opening with EPFL. Their Faculty of Basic Sciences was looking for a science writer. It was only half-time, and they offered me the position tentatively because I was a biologist. But it worked out well, and, about a year later, I proposed my other 50% of my time to the biology department, so now I spend my time writing for both faculties.

When did you discover cartoons? How did the idea for the Upturned Microscope develop?

From a very young age, I had an appreciation for humour in the form of comic strips. I had a blog from 2006 – back when it was still cool – but I didn’t have all that much to say. In 2011, when I left the lab for good, I had plenty of time. There I was in beautiful Cambridge, doing lots of gardening and looking for my next career move. I went to one of these impromptu conferences where people basically meet the first day and set their agenda for the rest of the conference. I offered to speak about science humour and celebrities, and they took me on. 

I was talking with one of the attendees about how postdocs have to move all the time and she joked about how there should be a postdoc caravan. That inspired the first ever comic on the Upturned Microscope, which was the Postdoc Trailer. I put that together and put it on the blog and saw my traffic increase 100- to 1000-fold within 24 hours. I thought this was something I could do. I had a lot of strong feelings about my time in academia, and I thought there were a lot of opportunities for humour. That’s how the Upturned Microscope was born. 

Soon a company from Israel asked me to draw some comics for them, and it just kept going. It’s really the fans that make it what it is, because people responded so well. I was aware of PhD Comics in the US. Jorge Cham is a real cartoonist, he’s brilliant, and I think there was no counterpart of his work in Europe. So before I knew it, people would be talking about my blog, which was scary, because I’m the only cartoonist in the world who really can’t draw. 

Where does your inspiration for new ideas come from?

A lot of it comes from my own experiences. People often think that the cartoons are exaggerated, but some are faithful biography; things that happened to me while I was in academia. My current job means I’m completely immersed in the academic world, but as an observer rather than a participant. I watch academia in biology and I watch academia in physics, maths and chemistry, which are very different worlds. I'm constantly fed with material and there’s no shortage of humour. 

You also write fiction and already have one novel published. Any more coming up soon? 

I have one novel out, it’s called Lazarus. That was a novel I wrote while I was doing my PhD. I do actually have two more novels: one that I’m re-writing and another that I’m developing. One is pure science fiction, the other one is a post-apocalyptic thriller that takes place in Cambridge. I haven’t managed to break into the publishing world as I’d like to, but I love writing and I still do it.

What next? Any plans for the future?

I like variety. I like these different doors that I go into creatively and scientifically. I just juggle them and they circle around in my life as need be. I’m very thankful to EPFL, they let me draw a comic for them every month, so that keeps me thinking in the “comic section” of my brain, and I write about science all day every day and I get to deal with so many different topics. My fiction writing is always informed by science itself, so I’m always trying to bring that into science fiction. In this stage in my life, I’m just taking it as it comes, and just pursuing it day by day.

Alex Reis

Photo: EPFL

Last Changes: 10.25.2016