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How's your PhD thesis comic stripping?

Culture Article published on 02 April 2024 , Updated on 02 April 2024

Since 2021, several PhD candidates from Université Paris-Saclay have been exhibiting their research topic on two comic strips each year. The 'La recherche sort de sa bulle' (Research breaks out of its bubble) project, organised by La Diagonale Paris- Saclay, offers students a series of workshops with illustrator Marine Spaak to help them create their own comic strip. As part of the Science with and for Society (SAPS) label, PhD candidates disseminate their research outside the academic world and to a wider audience.

This article was originally published in L'Edition n.23.

"What is the point of research if it never leaves the lab bench?" This question has been taken up by La Diagonale Paris- Saclay,the arts, culture, science and society department of Université Paris- Saclay. Its mission is to bridge the gap between scientific activities and the rest of society; it is committed to making science accessible to everyone, by every possible means, and in particular by using visual media. In addition to creating videos, podcasts and board games, Charlène Corty, in charge of scientific outreach at La Diagonale, has been organising 'La recherche sort de sa bulle' workshops for the past two years.

This Université programme is modelled on 'Sciences en bulle' (Science in a bubble), an initiative of the French Ministry of Higher Education and Research (MESR), which selects ten French PhD candidates each year. These ten winners are then asked to write a comic strip on their thesis topic. But, as Charlène Corty points out, "every year, we get several interested people" from all over the Université Paris-Saclay campus. For the past two years, the Université has been offering its PhD candidates an education programme on writing comics. In these workshops, funded by the MESR's SAPS label, interested PhD candidates aim to create two comic strips showcasing their research topic. Accompanied by illustrator Marine Spaak, the students draw up a storyboard, which is a document containing the text, layout and visual ideas for the comic strip. The illustrator then finalises the drawings and colourisation.

Education for PhD candidates

Students develop their own story boards during the four education workshops. They proceed in stages and face a number of challenges. The first difficulty is space constraints: "Two times six comic strips is not a lot," comments Kévin, who took part in the 2022 edition. So you have to choose the messages you want to get across, prioritise them and, if necessary, sacrifice the less important ones for the sake of clarity.

This first written section precedes the section devoted to the specific features of the comic strip, including the correct division of the message and the message assigned to each box. Finally, the last stage is visual and focuses on sketching the first drawings. For Alice, another participant in the 2022 edition, the challenge is "to illustrate your thesis. It's not easy to use humour." According to the PhD candidate, the contribution of an outside viewpoint from other PhD candidates as well as nonresearch supervisors during group workshops is invaluable. "They give us feedback that we don't expect at all but which really helps," says Alice.

Comics as a special means of disseminating scientific information

For PhD candidates, this experience of writing comics is a step towards improving their ability to popularise science. It can be combined with other programmes run by Université or the MESR, such as ‘Ma Thèse en 180 secondes’ (My Thesis in 180 seconds) or the annual Science Festival. The strength of comics lies in their ability to concentrate a great deal of information, using both text and drawing. "In comics, you can tell a lot of stories in a single box," notes Alice. Furthermore, visual media are often considered more accessible by the public and help to demystify research. "People close to me pointed out that it was easier to understand my research thanks to comics," says Kévin.

You can find all the comic strips of 'La recherche sort de sa bulle', including the 2023 creations with the illustrator Alice Varoquaux on the Science & société website.