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A Conversation with Jake McKinlay

A Q&A with researcher, storyteller, and artist Dr. Jake McKinlay, about how he implements art and storytelling in the classroom and his own artistic process.

On June 21, associate professor and artist at Indiana University Bloomington, Jake McKinlay gave a workshop to ArtLab’s artists-in-residence centered around storytelling with sciart. His work dives into the metabolic physiology of E. coli, taking his students on a journey with it’s process, utilizing his own comic drawings. I sat down with Jake virtually to discuss his class and sciart implementation, his process, and next steps.

Miquéla Thornton: To start us off, as a researcher and as a professor what's the thing that you enjoy most about creating sciart for stories.

Jake McKinlay: Well, I’ve always been an artist, so it’s important for me to try to maintain that part of my life alongside the research side of things, which can be all-consuming. But I find that when I’m really into the research, intensively thinking about it, it actually helps the art. Also, vice versa, so I feel like if I can maintain the artistic side of things, that creativity helps with my research. So for whatever reason, getting deep into the research kind of inspires me artistically as well.

And I also enjoy exploring how to communicate the science. In the end that's what it's all about. If you work so hard at the research and no one understands it, then what is it all for? Thus, working on the art and finding new ways to communicate the research that I work on is also important.

MT: Would you mind giving a quick few-sentence synopsis of how you relate illustration in the classroom just to contextualize readers before I asked my next few questions.

JM: Yes! So far, I have a story that runs as a continuous backdrop through all the lectures. At the start of every lecture, I say here's where we are in the story, and the students get the visuals too, in order to place themselves in the storyline. Then, we spend the class talking about how this E. coli cell survives in different environments and what are the genetic and physiological traits that come into play, as the E. coli cell makes its journey through these different environments.

MT: When did you realize that illustration and story was something you wanted to use in your classroom, and about how long did it take that idea to materialize?

JM: I would say it's something I’ve always wanted to do. That’s been an advantage to me in this career: I’ve noticed that if I let myself bring my art into my presentations or my grant proposals or papers, it helps it get noticed and helps keep people awake. In terms of implementing it, I waited until I had tenure just because I knew it would be quite an undertaking! First things first, I have to make sure I keep the job before I go on these educational explorations. Fortunately, after waiting for a bit of safety, I got funding from the NSF which also helped.

MT: Are there any specific types of storytelling that you think it's important for scientists who want to undertake this should know?

JM: I don't know if there's a particular type of storytelling, but what I’m doing is probably not for everyone, just given the amount of work involved in it. One of my goals is that I'll be able to distribute this so other people teaching microbiology can use it so they don't have to spend all this time creating their own story. I’m trying to make it modular so that people can kind of pick and choose and rearrange things to best suit them. Potentially, it could even be used by instructors who come up with their own storyline using the same visuals. In the end, it’s all about communication that allows people to understand and achieve working knowledge rather than just pure memorization of the subject matter. I’d say any kind of storytelling that can help achieve that is worthwhile.

MT: Are there any other divisions of microbiology or other concepts that you'd like to try and convey through a visual story medium.

JM: Yes, there’s certainly a lot! Microbes are so diverse and do so many interesting things and because of that, I keep wanting to find ways to put new and interesting lifestyles into this storyline to highlight these fascinating organisms. Microbiology intersects with all aspects of life so you could imagine how this story could be told in so many different ways. I chose E. coli because we know the most about it and it comes with most of the textbook knowledge that students can go look up; but there's a lot of other fascinating microbes that would be interesting to follow on their journey.

MT: Speaking of your story, I was wondering when you first began creating it, where did you start? Did the story’s plot come first, did you simply build off the facts or did the drawings come first.

JM: The way I was already teaching my course inspired the storyline. I’ll be going into my tenth year teaching this course, but I knew from the first year I taught that it could be made into a story, and around my eighth year I began developing it. I realized I could make it into a story because I felt likeI was teaching microbial physiology as if we were descending into the column of sediment, however the students didn’t really see it that way. A lot of feedback I received said that the material seemed like a random assortment of details that they had trouble putting all together. And while I saw the connections of starting in the gut, out into the water, and going down into the sediment, they didn’t. Thus from that, the story evolved.

In the initial version, E. coli started in a restaurant and then somehow it got into a lake in the Midwest of the United States, but then I thought it would be more interesting and perhaps more important to bring the story somewhere where there's an actual epidemic happening. So, instead I centered it around a cholera outbreak in Bangladesh, bringing a whole other aspect to the story. Now, not only do you have physiology and ecology, but students are also learning the vital importance of the disease.

MT: Real world contextualization of the course material through the story is so important.

JM: Yes it falls in line with my two main goals of using storytelling in the classroom. The first is to help students achieve functional knowledge from detail-intensive subject matter. I want students to be able to go beyond memorization and be able to contextualize and apply the details they learn in my class. Since we are wired to learn by storytelling, I thought this approach could help students achieve functional knowledge. I also want to change attitudes towards traditionally unpopular but important subjects. My class deals with a lot of metabolism. At face value metabolism often appears both overwhelming and dry. At some point, I moved past this attitude and realized that metabolism is amazing. Using a familiar, and hopefully engaging, storyline might help students see how metabolism comes into play in different situations, and make it seem less overwhelming by organizing the details against a storyline.

MT: Wow, both of those goals are so important and are things I think could almost be applied to teaching all of the basic sciences. Would you mind talking a bit about your process on the art side of things?

JM: Yeah, I guess my comfort zone is pen and ink, so I do everything on paper. I’m not that comfortable with color, so to explore color I go digital. After scanning the drawings, I do all the color in photoshop. I don’t really know if I’m going to like something until I try it, so I use the undo button a lot! I play around until I find something that works and go from there.

MT: When you begin a new illustration, do you have any goals or intentions in mind as you go?

JM: Yes, I try to pay attention to the composition, and in cases like this: how much information I’m going to convey on one page. As this project evolved, I’ve recognized additional opportunities for it. Thus, with the final images I’m working on, I’m making more strategic decisions and asking myself “How is this going to potentially fit into a graphic novel format?” I’ve also begun asking, how one drawing can be made to take part in a larger image or a video, et cetera. Where could animation go, how can I make it easier for myself to implement techniques such as animation and other considerations like that.

MT: You mentioned animation in the workshop you led, which I really enjoyed by the way, along with other future projects such as a graphic novel, a children’s book, and a coloring book. Is there anything you’re currently working on?

JM: Right now, I would say that the graphic novel is a priority. Next time I teach the class in January, I would like to be able to hand the students something physical and test how they respond to it. I’m also experimenting with adding audio and other new material. Right now, they have access to a video I created for a science outreach event. Outreach events are also something I’m trying more of. They have the potential to ease people into a subject and to help increase public awareness and appreciation for how the field of microbiology, and the microbes themselves, intersect with society.

MT: That’s so cool! I have one last ending question. It’s a bit open-ended. If you have one, what is your dream sciart or storytelling project?

JM: So I’ve always been drawn to comics. I basically learned how to draw from them. That’s what I thought I was going to do in high school. When I went to apply to university, most deadlines passed so I applied to my local university the day before the deadline. I went and grabbed my sister because my mom and dad didn’t know I hadn’t applied to any universities! So, she sat me down and helped me fill out the application for their science programs. I got cold feet because drawing comics didn’t really seem realistic. I’d spent the summer testing it out and realized I was really slow and that made me nervous. Later, while in undergrad, I drew comics for the school newspaper every two or so weeks. From drawing that much, drawing became quick and easy in those days.ow it’s hard to find time to draw and I have to fight to get my hands to behave! So, because it’s been building up for a long time, I would say my dream project is to create that graphic novel.

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