Sketching Science is a well-known blog amongst the scientist community. Most of the posts relate to the guy who cries after a PCR fails, and stays inside the lab irrespective of weather and time. The wit and humor packed in the sketches have supplemented the constant need for coffee. The blog has become one of the most popular amongst the scientists in a short span of just a year. The main blog does not reveal the identity of the cartoon maker or the model. The first revelation, no, the guy in the images is not the cartoonist. The Sketching Science guy is a lab colleague of Ernesto Llamas, the creator of Sketching Science. Secondly, No, I am not revealing the name of the model (perhaps some other day). On behalf of Club Sciwri, I spoke to Ernesto. Frequently, he uses two tools: the micropipette and the iPad stylus. In this post, he shares with us his beginning, his present, and his future aspirations.
I.J. How did you choose to become a scientist?
E.L. My father is a psychiatrist and my mother a painter. So, since I was a child, I was surrounded by both science and art. My dad inspired me to go into life sciences whereas my mother was a significant influence to get into the art world. When I was about to finish high school, I heard about Genomics, and I was very keen to study it. However, back then this field was still emerging in Mexico, and only two Universities had this degree. Thus, it was tough to get admitted. I tried, but I was not accepted. Then, I decided to study Biology at the best University of my country, the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Moving to Mexico City and studying Biology opened up my mind and horizons. I found my passion for molecular biology.
After becoming a Biologist, I decided to pursue a Masters in Biochemistry. During my Master’s I started working in the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana. It was the first time I did real experiments using a micropipette. I was very interested in chloroplast biology.
After finishing my Masters, I wanted to move out from Mexico. Science is a career that allows you to travel and meet new people, and interact with them, either via conferences or going to different laboratories. I was very motivated with the idea of studying a Ph.D. abroad. I applied to several places, was rejected by some but finally, I came to Barcelona to the Centre for Research in Agricultural Genomics (CRAG). Nowadays, I am still working on plant biology using Arabidopsis as my model. I am in my 3rd year and planning to defend my thesis this year. I have been able to publish some of my work from my Masters and Ph.D.
I.J. Since when have you been sketching and painting? How did Sketching Science come about?
E.L. Since I was a kid, I have been painting. In my school notebooks, there were sketches and doodles everywhere. I also took some painting lessons where I had the opportunity to learn watercolor and oil painting. Once I joined the university, I did not get much time to paint, sketch or doodling. However, during my Ph.D., I re-discovered my passion for art. I received an iPad as a gift, and I started to using it to take notes, and again, there were digital doodles and sketches everywhere. I was attending to seminars, and while taking notes, I was drawing the speaker, the images, and charts shown in the presentation.
I am a fan of social media; I used so see all the amazing blogs like AsapSCIENCE, PHD Comics, IFLScience, and others. I noticed that many others do not show much visual material about the life of scientists in a research lab. So, I decided to illustrate everyday struggles in a molecular biology lab.
In the beginning, I decided to open a Twitter account, but I did not get much response there, so I started using Instagram and then Facebook back in March 2016. It has been a year since I started and I am very thankful for the help provided by wife, lab mates and the “Sketching Science guy” that give me a hand to recreate the humoristic situations that happen daily in the lab.
Experiments do not always work correctly. Doing science can bring you frustration, but you have to keep working and fix your mistakes. You just have to make fun of your errors and keep going. For example, if your PCR did not work, you just need to laugh about it and try it again, and that is the message I want to spread with my posts.
That’s how it started, and I think it is going well because the number of Sketching Science followers are still increasing.
I.J. How did it evolve into a business?
E.L. I am just starting to transform Sketching Science into a business. It is super hard to manage a business and finish a Ph.D. Right now I am quite busy, trying to write my first author paper and my Ph.D. thesis. Some companies have contacted me to make some advertisement for them, and it is rewarding because my work is appreciated and support me to keep creating content. I am planning to make an appropriate business platform. Once I finish my Ph.D., my plan is to have a proper website with engaging images to communicate science. I would like to have some sponsored content to create the website and keep Sketching Science’s social networks growing.
But for now, I am just focusing on finish my P.h.D. and is a lot of work. Right now, it’s just my wife and me who are doing this; she helps me with social media and with the upcoming website. To transform Sketching Science into a proper science communication platform will take some time. I will need some funds or financial aid to become a professional.
However, I am looking for post-doc positions right now. But sometimes it is hard to get one. I do want to follow an academic career. Nevertheless, if I do not get a suitable position, I will focus on Sketching Science a 100% and look for other options during the meantime.
Science communication is a relevant thing right now, so I think it’s okay to keep developing Sketching Science and follow a scientific career.
I.J. How supportive is your PI and your institute?
E.L. My PI is very supportive. He knows what I am doing. I also make a lot of cartoons for lab presentations, and I think he likes them. Right now, I am helping him create visuals for reviews and posters. We are also planning to come up with a book. Regarding CRAG, I think most of the people there know that I am the creator of Sketching Science.
I.J. Why do you think visual media is relevant in science communication?
E.L. So, a text is not very inviting. I am more a visual person. I believe that a colorful and balanced image is more exciting and inviting. For instance, when I see a post on Facebook with an attractive image, I automatically click the link attached to the picture and I read the article. Definitively, posting visual content on social networks, it’s a powerful tool to communicate science nowadays.
I.J. How has been your personal experience juggling a Ph.D. and a Facebook page?
E.L. When I started I was posting one drawing per day. Every day was tough, so now I create one once in a week. I am busy most of the week; I try to make something during nights, or in the train on my way to the Institute. Particularly, I work mostly during weekends creating stuff for Sketching Science. Designing the sketches somehow releases my stress.
I.J. What kind of feedback do you receive from your followers?
E.L. I have had some great responses for some of my posts. Some months ago, I made a post about the PCR protocol, and one follower recreated the whole set of sketches taking photos of himself. For the post “Summer is coming” another fan sent me a picture of him wearing the same lab coat, shirt, gloves, and sunglasses just like the Sketching Science guy! It is nice to see how people recreate some of my work.
Albus Dumbledore said, “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” On behalf of the scientific community, I thanked Ernesto for bringing the much need break from the cycles of frustration.
About the author
Ipsa Jain is a Ph.D. student at IISc. She wants to gather and spread interestingness. She prefers painting and drawing over writing. She posts on Facebook and Instagram as Ipsawonders.
Dr. Neha Bhudha edited the article.