25 December 2020

#AntarcticLog: Dimethylsulfoniopropronionate (er…plankton stuff)

Posted by Shane Hanlon

#AntarcticLog is a series of comics by Karen Romano Young. You can find the originals here

The first of many research road trips for #AntarcticLog happened in July 2017, when I went to Maine to the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences to visit Dr. Pete Countway, whose assistant and resident artist I would be, and to meet Dr. Paty Matrai and her senior research assistant Carlton Rauschenberg. 

There’s nothing like a visit to a scientist’s laboratory to put me in my place, making me realize how much I have to learn just to be able to be part of the conversation at the lunch table, never mind to turn around and tell a story for an audience of people who aren’t scientists either. 

Pete and Paty were going to Antarctica to study dimethylsulfoniopropronionate, a material produced by plankton. DMSP, as it’s called, may impact the plankton’s  predators, as well as cloud formation and climate. Just reading that name used to make me break out in a sweat. 

Lucky for me, I started my career at Scholastic Magazines (the news mag kids get in their classrooms), and was used to asking what seemed like dumb questions in order to report stories in a way that made kids feel smarter. Lucky for me, Pete introduced me to a colleague, Dr. Steve Archer, who made the whole subject clearer by describing DMSP production as “plankton farts,” and assigned an intern, Stephanie Peart, to give me a tour.   

The day gave me so much material I couldn’t stick to just one comic, but did four, and turned them into a giant comic as well as a foldout that we used to explain our invisible project in a visible way. I’m attaching them here, along with a poster-within-a-poster that I made to get school students using comics to tell their own science stories. (Reminder: these materials can be used free in classrooms thanks to the Creative Commons agreement. Use them!)


Next week: A look at penguins of auld lang syne — and today — and tomorrow. 

Karen Romano Young is a writer, artist, deep-sea diver, and polar explorer. Follow her on Twitter & Instagram