Scientists learn from doodles with 'science scribing'

Scientists learn how to use graphics when taking notes

kpoe@newsobserver.comFebruary 1, 2013 

Perrin Ireland, a science scribe and communicator for the San Francisco office of the Natural Resources Defense Council.


  • ScienceOnline 2013 The ScienceOnline conference, held annually in the Triangle, runs through Saturday. The event, mostly on the N.C. State University campus, focuses on the intersection of science and the Internet. About 450 people are taking part.

— Hundreds of scientists and science enthusiasts from around the world are gathering in the Triangle this week.

Many of them, whether or not they know it, are artists, Perrin Ireland says.

Ireland, a San Francisco-based communicator for the National Resources Defense Council, spends most days as a professional doodler. But this week, she taught eight students, mostly of science backgrounds, the basics of “science scribing” at the kickoff workshops of ScienceOnline 2013.

Scribing, or graphic capturing, is a method of illustrating notes rather than using text alone.

Ireland studied biology at Brown University, although she’d been learning art throughout her life. After doing freelance drawing for scientists, she learned about sketch noting, then made her niche in science scribing.

“It was a big leap; no one had my job before me,” Ireland said. “It was very scary to sort of invent my profession.”

ScienceOnline 2013, which continues through Saturday, brings hundreds of scientists, bloggers, journalists, librarians and others to the Triangle each year. Among sessions, there’s a science comic drawing workshop and the “CyberScreen Science Film Festival.”

Bora Zivkovic, conference co-founder and Scientific American blogs editor, said he knows of at least 30 attendees who are scientists but also professional artists on some level. Some are photographers and illustrators, but there also are an opera singer and a ballerina. These artists often mix both disciplines in unexpected ways.

“That adds something important to the conference,” Zivkovic said. “Over the years, (it’s) come to be seen very much as a writers’ conference, and I think people kind of miss that there are a lot of other ways to communicate.”

Zivkovic met Ireland at a science conference in 2011, after he already was following her on Twitter. He invited her to scribe the sessions at ScienceOnline 2012, and she came to talk about science scribing this year.

The best content to scribe has high levels of dense information paired with a need to process that information at a high level, Ireland said.

Michael Lombardi, a science educator from Indianapolis, said he hopes to use the scribing workshop to better teach tough concepts, like Mendelian genetics, to students.

Beyond comprehension, Ireland said, visuals catch the interest of those normally afraid of science.

Ireland, 28, drew a circle at the workshop and drew basic lines to give it dimension.

“There, we’ve got a ball in the sun – a molecule.”

She drew a triangle and made it two dimensional with two lines.

“Now you’ve got a pyramid. The food pyramid – now outdated.”

Ireland encouraged people to practice and to document sessions they attend, as well as concepts or tough journal articles within their disciplines.

And even Ireland comes across concepts she struggles to visualize, she said.

“That’s why I’m excited about getting more people here doodling and having sort of a hive-mind effect, and that’s sort of how good art works and that’s how good science works.”

Poe: 829-4563

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