I think what drew me to science was never data, figures, or facts. I always like the stories. That’s certainly how I ended up in biology. Though I’ve come to realize there are stories to be told in any area of science, biology particularly lends itself to narrative conceptualization. Species and organisms are characters. The settings are familiar to us: the wilderness, the ocean, the arctic.
These are the settings for macrobiological stories. However, stories easily emerge in microbiology as well. White blood cells battle diseases. Amoebas attack and consume smaller organisms. The microbiological landscape is littered with stories of brutal warfare and remarkable innovation (or rather, the illusion of innovation in organisms too small to have brains capable of innovating).
One of my favorite stories in microbiology is that of viral reproduction. Viruses are not cells and are thus not considered to be alive by scientists. And yet they are able to hijack the cellular hardware of living things and use it to self-replicate. The whole process is quite brutal. It is the ultimate example of a non-human story to which human motivations can be applied. An apt anthropomorphism.
Something I’ve learned in my science communication course is that some science communicators are vehemently opposed to anthropomorphisms of any kind. I disagree. I think people, including children, are smart enough to recognize the difference between anthropomorphism as a symbol and a genuine factual misrepresentation. Anthropomorphism gives us a way to contextualize abstract information into terms we already understand. Human beings are natural storytellers; we have an innate understanding of the underlying structures of narrative. And these give us a window into obscure, confusing knowledge.
I’ve attempted to make some of these ideas more concrete, along with my general views on artistic imagery as a window to engagement with science, by creating a short comic about the narrative of a virus. Instead of reciting the lytic cycle, I paint the virus as a sinister creature attacking unsuspecting prey.
I hope my comic captures the spirit of a virus’ story. To me, it is one of the most exciting stories in the microbiological universe. Quite proud of my illustration process on this one as well. I only drew one virus and one bacterium. Some clever tricks with Illustrator did the rest.