How I Came to Write and
Publish a Comic Book
BY VERONICA BERNS
Earlier this year, I raised more than $14,000 through a Kickstarter campaign to publish Atomic Size Matters, my doctoral thesis in chemistry presented as a fully illustrated comic book. News of this campaign was picked up by many newspapers, including the New York
Times, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune, as well as in Mental
Floss and other magazines, and a multitude of websites.
How did this adventure begin? As a chemistry student, you
can probably relate to this scenario. I had often tried to talk
about my work with non-scientist family and friends, but ended
up losing them at square one. Sometimes I was more successful at keeping my listeners’ interest, but they were still so far
removed from the research I was doing that I wasn’t satisfied.
Surely I could find a middle ground that pleased both my audience and myself.
Eventually, I reached for a pen and paper to try to explain
some of my work in layman’s terms. Orbitals? They sometimes
look like dumbbells and four-leaf clovers. A mechanism? It’s an
atomic square dance. Crystal structure? That’s a 3-D wallpaper
pattern on the atomic scale. Some analogies of this sort can be
sillier than others, but they each hold a kernel of truth because
chemistry is so inherently visual. After classes upon classes, we
chemists can take for granted our ability to automatically translate the chemical structures we envision into words. To those
outside of the field, our shorthand nomenclature doesn’t evoke
the beautiful pictures that you and I can see when we say “dz2
orbital” and “SN2 mechanism”.
I ultimately settled on a comic book format to pair pictures
closely with story. And then I began to write.
I knew I was going to be a scientist when I was a little kid. I
got such joy from watching Bill Nye mix home chemicals, and by
the time I was done with elementary school, I had been on every
“Magic School Bus” field trip. Through middle and high school, I
selected chemistry as my subject of choice, and then I went to a
college with a strong program, where I began synthesizing new
compounds in solid-state reactions.
Choosing a graduate school was an easy decision. After apply-
ing to several schools, I was lucky enough to have a few options,
but I knew exactly what I wanted to do when I read about
Professor Danny Fredrickson’s investigations into the complex
crystal structures of intermetallic compounds at the University
of Wisconsin–Madison. His work looks at crystal structures in a
new way, interpreting complexity as an alternative to simpler
patterns. I was firmly set on studying this fascinating relationship
for my five years in grad school.
During those five years, like any grad student, I was immersed
in the research. I learned everything I could about the patterns in
the family of compounds known as intermetallics. In the summer
of 2013, my time left in grad school became finite. My advisor
and I met to plan for graduation and to count out the paper-worthy ideas that would become the constituent chapters of my
thesis. Suddenly the whole world of research that I had explored,
discovered, and built had limits. My upcoming graduation day
was a way of celebrating my accomplishments, but I was concerned that this beautiful world I knew so well would disappear
from my daily life and, worse yet, remain abstract and inaccessible to those around me.
Finding the right balance
I struggled to find the middle ground between readability and
precision for a long time. It was important to me to convey
accurate and honest information without talking down to the
audience, or boring them. In Madison, I was very lucky to be surrounded by talented communicators who fell everywhere on the
spectrum of scientist to non-scientist. (The spectrum’s end points