Science illustrated

McDermott Big Data poster

Dec. 7, 2017

By Rebecca Hood

Yersinia pastries. Staphylococcus Oreos. Whooping coffee. The Marburger virus.

These "#confectious diseases" may not be appetizing, but they are entirely consumable – giggle-worthy science comics drawn up by JasonMcDermott, Ph.D. '00. Featuring topics such as the peer review process, scientists' dependence on coffee and the aforementioned, pun-heavy confectious diseases, Dr. McDermott's comics provide a unique, humorous perspective about science that is accessible to those both inside and outside the scientific community. 

McDermott Peer Review comicThere's a good reason Dr. McDermott has a knack for capturing the struggles of scientists: research is his day job. After receiving his Ph.D. in biology from OHSU in 2000, Dr. McDermott now works as a senior research scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash.

Dr. McDermott used to draw as a child but stopped as he got older. Then, a couple years ago, one of his colleagues described a metaphor that struck Dr. McDermott as so visual that he drew it and posted it on his nascent science blog. The positive feedback was encouraging enough that Dr. McDermott decided to draw about his personal experiences in science and share the resulting comics.

He eventually created a separate website called RedPen/BlackPen to showcase his art. As he got more serious about publicizing his comics, they became more popular, and in the past year, he says, RedPen/BlackPen has really taken off.

With that affirmation, Dr. McDermott began to include his art in his professional scientific presentations. When discussing it (over coffee,naturally), Dr. McDermott describes the difficulties scientists face when trying to convey complex ideas with jargon- heavy language.

"Visual communication," he said, "is more approachable."

Earlier this year, he created and presented an entirely hand-drawn poster about big data at a conference (above). Though apprehensive about how the poster would be received, Dr. McDermott said he had people stopping by to ask questions about it far ahead of his scheduled session.

"The comic element injected some fun," he said, and became a good way to interest people in conversation.

With overwhelmingly positive feedback, Dr. McDermott says the experience has prompted him to rethink how scientists currently design and present their text-laden posters. He already has another illustrated poster in the works, one that will focus more on his area of research. Dr. McDermott uses computational approaches to discover new biomarkers from large, complex datasets.

Making science accessible to others motivates Dr. McDermott. But while a lot of headline-grabbing articles simplify science in favor of increasing page views, Dr.McDermott stresses that it's important to communicate the nuances of how the scientific method works. It's one of the goals of his comics.

Ultimately, he said, "if you don't communicate your science to the outside world, you won't be able to keep doing it." But with his pen-and-ink approach, Dr.McDermott illustrates – quite literally – that it is possible to "distill [complex] ideas down to a more approachable thing." One that makes people smile and want more.

This article first published in the Fall 2017 issue of Bridges, the school's alumni magazine.

McDermott Marburger Virus comic