17 November 2021

#DrawnToGeoscience: Storytelling via Zine

Posted by Shane Hanlon

#DrawnToGeoscience is a series of posts by artists who draw about science and explain their process and inspiration while also showcasing their pieces. Learn more about contributing. This week, Evelyn Pae and Sasha Wagner.

The cover of Molecular Tales. Credit: Evelyn Pae.

To study chemistry is to study the art of sequential storytelling. Each step in a chemical reaction is a new progression of events: the loss of an election, the formation of a bond, the introduction of a catalyst. Look deeply into an organic chemistry reaction mechanism diagram, and you can see that it is like a step-by-step cartoon: a visualization in symbols of those elusive processes which cannot be perceived with the naked eye.

It was a fascination with this type of scientific imagery that inspired me to create Molecular Tales of Marine Dissolved Organic Matter with Dr Sasha Wagner. As I learned more about Dr Wagner’s research, I was struck by the importance of “characterizing” these unknown molecular figures, and charmed by the deep mystery of the sea’s inherent chemical complexity. I found the parallels between chemical and fictional “characterization” too funny to resist making the joke, which is what Molecular Tales is: an expression of everything I find amusing and compelling about the study of dissolved organic matter, in the form of an illustrated booklet that follows the story of four different organic molecules through their respective journeys to the sea.

I have been interested in science communication, art, and literature since the start of my education in the environmental sciences. There are as many ways of communicating science as there are scientists: graphs, figures, presentations, papers, books, lectures. By channeling information about dissolved organic matter biogeochemistry into a comic book—a recognizable form, with its own connotations—I wanted to spark contemplation of what it means to produce and communicate scientific knowledge. A scientist has a unique depth of perspective on what are often very specific subjects. Telling those stories to others unlocks a sense of wonder about the world we live in, a realization of how many amazing things live just below the surface.

When producing Molecular Tales, I was lucky to have access to multiple experts in the field of DOM, including Dr Lihini Aluwihare (Scripps Institution of Oceanography), Dr Sinikka Lennartz (University of Oldenburg), Dr Rob Spencer (Florida State University), and Dr Wagner herself (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute). These four scientists are included and quoted in order to show what kind of work lies behind the information used to illustrate each molecule’s tale, and I am very grateful for their contribution.

-Evelyn Pae is an undergraduate student in Environmental Science (’22) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Sasha Wagner is an assistant professor in the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Learn more about Sasha’s research in organic matter biogeochemistry and fire-derived carbon cycling on her group’s website or get in touch with her via email. The Molecular Tales zine is freely available and can be viewed as an e-booklet or downloaded as a PDF file.