Cartooning Science at the Bottom of the World


Researchers from Bigelow Laboratory will soon return to Antarctica for a second field season at Palmer Station. While the team has spent the last year addressing the scientific and logistical demands of their work, they have also been preparing for another important challenge – communicating its meaning and excitement to the public.

The researchers are using advanced molecular techniques and experimental setups to study microbial communities in the Southern Ocean. Sharing their complex research with nonscientists is never an easy task, but the team has been exploring new ways to include people in their science.

This March, writer and illustrator Karen Romano Young will join their field team. Through a series of comics called “Antarctic Log,” Young is making this research more visible, vibrant, and accessible.

She launched Antarctic Log when the researchers spent their first field season at Palmer Station in 2017. From photographs, discussions with the researchers, and her own experiences preparing for the trip, she has already drawn numerous illustrations that use humor and creativity to teach people about this cutting-edge project. Now, it’s time for her to go south as well.

“I want people to understand and care about this important research,” Young said. “I want young people to develop a real interest in science and maybe even become scientists themselves one day.”

While she and the researchers power through their intense two-month field season, classrooms following Antarctic Log will gain unique insight into field science, life in Antarctica, and microbial research. Several Maine schools will follow the researchers’ work through Young’s cartoons, as will others around the country.

Young designed the square format of Antarctic Log to work well with Instagram, and believes that social media allows people to be part of the process of science, rather than only its outcomes.

“You really can sit on somebody’s shoulder as they’re doing their work and be there for that eureka moment,” she said. “That’s what I want to share most of all.”

Senior Research Scientists Pete Countway and Paty Matrai will lead the expedition, along with Research Associate Carlton Rauschenberg. They will run a series of experiments to study the relationship between bacteria and phytoplankton. Certain phytoplankton form a compound that leads bacteria to release dimethyl sulfide, a compound that spurs cloud formation and thereby helps regulate the planet’s climate. This research is funded by the National Science Foundation, which is also providing funding for Young through the Antarctic Artists and Writers program.

“Karen’s artwork and other creative communication products help connect people to the excitement of our research,” said Countway, who has wanted to work with Young since they met on a 2008 cruise studying deep sea hydrothermal vents.

The scientists are bringing life in the Antarctic closer to Maine students in other ways, too. This spring, Countway hopes to live-stream from Antarctica to a fifth-grade science night at Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School in Brunswick. During the first field season, he connected with students in multiple states when he conducted a video tour of Palmer Station with 120 elementary school students.

“It was great, because students from New Hampshire and Maine could hear one another’s questions,” Countway said.

Matrai held a video call as well, with 122 students from 17 classrooms in Maine. She gave a tour of the station and explained their research project. She also spoke with the students about their own phytoplankton experiments, which each classroom set up with help from Bigelow Laboratory’s National Center for Marine Alga and Microbiota.

“As a federally funded scientist, it is my responsibility to share my science with the public of all ages,” Matrai said. “That means sharing the process as much as the results themselves, and the enthusiasm as well as the monotony of science. It is as much about the reality of daily life in such conditions, as it is a travel log of this exotic place.”

One school participating in Matrai’s outreach is pretty remote itself. Located on an island in the northern Gulf of Maine, North Haven Community School is Maine’s smallest K-12 school. Teacher Laura Venger has been working with Matrai for nearly a decade and says the relationship with the oceanographer is valuable for her students, many of whom are interested in careers in science or fishing.

“Having conversations with somebody in the field, who does real science, is just amazing,” Venger said. “It's spectacular – the places she's been, the experience she has, and the knowledge that she brings us. I could talk about all this stuff in my classroom, but connecting with somebody who's actually in the field makes it come alive for the kids. It puts a face to the science.”

Whether visiting a school or answering questions from half a world away, this interaction is energizing for the researchers as well.

“I love working with children because they are for the most part unbiased,” Matrai said. “They will quickly respond to enthusiasm, and they will also quickly see through any attempt to make something more than what it is.”

Students from North Haven visited the research team on the Bigelow Laboratory campus in February, where they learned about oceanographic instruments, zooplankton, and ocean circulation. This spring, they will continue to follow along with the research via Antarctic Log. Young hopes that her work will inspire and empower these students.

“I want to help people form a personal connection to science through scientists,” Young said. “I want to show people, this is what a scientist looks like. This is what a scientist is like, talks like, works like. This is where they work. I’m trying to open that door for people.”

Young encourages students to submit to a science comics contest she is running until May 15th, 2018. Winning submissions will be displayed on the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History’s Ocean Portal website.