The First VIRS: A graphic novel thesis

“In 2067, the Global Water Crisis wiped out much of humanity, forcing survivors to either flee underground or escape into orbit. Nearly 50 years later, teenager Asoka Morei lives a life of sheltered privilege in a Green Haven, far from the dark, over-crowded rock chambers of the Underground Cities. But when Asoka’s Home is attacked, they must journey into the Red Zone to find a mysterious people who might be re-growing the decimated Amazon Rainforest.”

Hi everyone! My name is Danbee Kim, and I’m collaborating with 17 amazing artists to create The First VIRS (Vigilante Intergalactic Roustabout Scholar), a hard science fiction graphic novel that combines my neuroscience PhD research with a speculation on how the next 100 years might play out, given our current intellectual, environmental, and socio-political landscape. This novel will be included in my PhD thesis so that I can present my research in both the traditional expository format (background, methods, results, discussion) and the visual narrative format, which is becoming an increasingly popular tool for science communication and education.

I’m communicating my research through a graphic novel because I want to make science and technology topics more accessible to EVERYONE, from young people (and any other science-curious, comic-loving human!) to experts in other specialities. I’ve developed the story plot with the help of my labmates, other research colleagues, science fiction writers, and countless friends, who all lent their enormous diversity of expertise to a project that we hope demonstrates the power of art to help experts across specialities collaborate and share insights. Once published, both the graphic novel and my full thesis will be made freely viewable online, and a downloadable pdf file will be available to anyone willing to fill out a questionnaire to help us assess the impact of presenting PhD-level research using the graphic novel format.

We also want this graphic novel to start conversations about what we define as “scientific activity”, and how to build humane support structures to nurture such activity. If you would like to get involved in these kinds of conversations, if you are passionate about making science and technology more accessible and engaging, and/or if you would like to pre-order your printed copy of The First VIRS,


You’ll get access to project updates and exclusive behind-the-scenes artwork, and you’ll be the first to hear about our crowdfunding campaign, coming soon!

Teaser pages

Chapter 1 
title page
Chapter 1 title page, ‘The First VIRS’. Art by Xiao Xiao, Lettering by Danbee Kim.
Chapter 1, 
Page 1
Chapter 1, Page 1, ‘The First VIRS’. Art by Matteo Farinella, Lettering by Danbee Kim.
Chapter 2, 
Page 7
Chapter 2, Page 7, ‘The First VIRS’. Art by Miguel Montellano, Lettering by Danbee Kim.
Chapter 3, 
Page 9
Chapter 3, Page 9, ‘The First VIRS’. Art by Graham Marema, Lettering by Danbee Kim.
Diagram Description #3: Major Neurotransmitters
Scientific Diagram Description #3, ‘The First VIRS’. Graphic Design and Lettering by Danbee Kim.
Diagram #3: Major Neurotransmitters
Scientific Diagram #3, ‘The First VIRS’. Art by Gil Costa.
Chapter 4, 
Page 3
Chapter 4, Page 3, ‘The First VIRS’. Art by Julia Zimmerman, Lettering by Danbee Kim.
Chapter 5 
title page
Chapter 5 title page, ‘The First VIRS’. Art by Dominique Duong, Lettering by Danbee Kim.
Chapter 7 
title page
Chapter 7 title page, ‘The First VIRS’. Art by Gideon Gerlt, Lettering by Danbee Kim.

What do you mean, a graphic novel thesis?

As part of my PhD thesis in neuroscience, 17 artists and I are creating a hard science fiction graphic novel about of Asoka Morei, a teenager living 100 years in the future. After their home, a Green Haven, is destroyed, they embark on a journey to try to prevent a similar fate from befalling a mysterious group of people re-growing the decimated Amazon forest.

The story has 7 chapters, 7 scientific diagrams, and 3 dream sequences, and I’ve divided the illustration work amongst these 17 incredibly smart, skilled, and generous humans so that we can finish in time for my thesis deadline. This project also makes a great case study for the benefits and impact of massive collaborations between artists and scientists. I’ve been documenting our collaborative process on this github repository, and will publish a methods section in my thesis that details the lessons learned and insights gained from coordinating such a huge project. All told, this graphic novel will consist of about a third of my final thesis document.

You can find the full story script here, and the in-progress illustrated pages here.

Why write a science fiction graphic novel as part of your thesis?

Humans have engaged in storytelling since the beginning of our history as a species, and every culture around the world has at its core a rich collection of stories. To this day, we create and share stories in countless formats.

Stories help us remember and pass on complex information, gain perspective on difficult situations, and expand our capacity for empathy. The nearly universal success of stories as effective tools for good communication, powerful connection, and deep insight lead many to suspect a deeply fundamental connection between storytelling and the evolution and development of human brains. Humans are very social beings, and stories demonstrate enormous power when it comes to coordinating human ideas and actions.

For instance, the Golden Age of Science Fiction (1930s to 1960s) has had an enormous influence on current research programmes and engineering goals. Many adults who currently work on space exploration, robotics, or brain-computer interfaces grew up in a culture fascinated by the fictional stories of authors like Issac Asimov and Arthur C. Clark. The science fiction genre thus expands the toolkit of storytelling to include simulations of incredible futures, as a way to grapple with the knowledge that there are things we don’t even know we don’t know, and to imagine how we might face it.

How brains face the unknown and the unexpected has been the core motivation behind my PhD research and the research vision of my advisor, Dr. Adam Kampff. For the last 6 years, I’ve had the privilege of working with him and the amazing humans of the Intelligent Systems Lab. Together we have developed a diverse range of tools and strategies to study how brains build expectations about how things “should” work (often called our “model of the world”), and how brains adapt when new information or experiences break our expectations.

Studying reactions to the unexpected under traditional laboratory conditions can be quite challenging, given that laboratories were originally intended to be settings where one reduces and simplifies phenomena in order to examine them in greater detail and under tightly controlled conditions. This is not necessarily a useful strategy to apply to the study of how we deal with the unexpected. Communicating our findings can be even more challenging, as our insights often ride the boundary between science and philosophy, and our explanations tend to work best when prefaced with lengthy historical or experiential contextualization.

Given these challenges, my advisor and I realised that our research needs a more compelling format than the conventional academic article - the current tensions and distrust between academic scientists, policy makers, and folks on the street makes that clear. Turns out, we weren’t alone in our way of thinking! Other PhD candidates have taken creative approaches to their thesis or dissertation to make their research more accessible, and there is a growing interest in using and understanding the potential of graphic novels, comics, and other forms of visual narrative “to engage audiences who are currently underserved by other channels of science communication.”

So I threatened to write a graphic novel of my thesis, and Dr. Kampff called my (not quite) bluff.

But wait…what happened to your funding??

Last May I put together this budget, and Dr. Adam Kampff, my advisor and group leader of the Intelligent Systems Lab, approved me to use 10,000 GBP of his lab funds to hire people to illustrate the graphic novel portion of my thesis. In academia, these kinds of budgets are often allocated autonomously by research group leaders, as the scientific merit of individual projects are often best known to the group leader. Thus, I made an open call for artists on Twitter, Facebook, on my personal website, and via mailing lists and online forums. By September 2018, with the administrative approval from the head of the lab secured, I hired an initial cohort of artists, based on submitted portfolios, artistic/scientific background, and face-to-face interviews, then contracted their work at a fixed rate based on standard industry rates. Excited to dive into the work of translating my story script and diagram descriptions into illustrations, my collaborators and I worked intensely to meet our first project deadline in December.

When I began the process of trying to pay my artists, the administrative staff at our host institute suddenly became very concerned about my advisor’s decision to support this project with his lab funds. On February 1, 2019, the directors of the institute stepped in to request a detailed justification of the use of Dr. Kampff’s lab budget to fund this project, asking us to “Please understand that all of our expenses are subject to audit and we have a responsibility to make sure that our funders would consider any expenses valid.” In addition, they told us that “given that risk that the expenses may not be justifiable, please advise the artists to stop any ongoing work.”

I immediately shared the project’s github repository where I had been writing the story script and documenting the project. I also linked the directors to the dropbox folders containing all of the illustrated content created thus far, which was already a substantial portion of the complete work. I wrote a detailed justification for every item listed in the budget, explaining why I chose to work with so many artists, and how this unusually large collaboration required extra design work in order to coordinate visual elements across so many artistic styles. My advisor also spoke to them in person, hoping to make clear how this project fits into his research vision and my thesis work of developing diverse and innovative tools and strategies for studying minds.

The directors came back to us with their verdict a few days later:

“In considering the justification you have provided, we have decided that:

  1. The funds for scientific illustrations used in your thesis and in any subsequent research publications are supportable (£480 in your recent budget request)
  2. The graphic novel work and related character and dream sequence development is not research activity and thus is not a valid research expense and cannot be provided via Adam’s budget.”

Given how much illustration work was already done (one artist had already completed all illustration and colouring work), and the rapidly approaching submission date for my PhD thesis, I tried to appeal the directors’ decision. I asked University College of London, our institute’s host university, for a letter of support. Helen Craig, a public engagement advisor whom I met when I was awarded a UCL Train and Engage fellowship last year, kindly wrote the following letter on behalf of the UCL Culture department:

“I have worked with Danbee supporting her projects, and I’m writing to express my own and UCL Culture’s support for public engagement projects such as her graphic novel thesis. I understand that this is a complex situation, but I hope I can set the policy context for the importance of public engagement within research.

We see work like this as essential to achieving UCL’s core mission of transforming how knowledge is created and shared– and in enhancing the university’s impact on society.

The new UCL Research Strategy for 2019 also highlights the importance of this area, with one of the three aims of the strategy being crossing boundaries to increase engagement between disciplines, communities and activities. Our own Public Engagement Strategy, accessible at this link, goes into more detail of our support for engagement as a team, and is strategy is supported by the principle theme of UCL 2034 - making UCL an accessible and publically engaged university.

Wellcome themselves are keen supporters of public engagement, and have previously funded graphic novel and comic book projects through their own Public Engagement funds. Just last week they published a blog post on their desire for a diverse and innovative public engagement practice. The Gatsby charitable foundation also believe that promoting public engagement with contemporary science plays an important part in ensuring that today’s scientific research has a healthy future.

I know that the decision is in your hands, but I hope that this can inform your thinking around justification for the expenses. I’m happy to discuss anything in more detail.

Many thanks for reading, and all my best

Dr. Kampff also made a written statement of his view of the project in the following email:

“Hi All,

I feel I should clarify my view. This project, as with all of the projects in my lab, have mixed both research and engagement components. For example, the lab (Danbee and Goncalo) developed a public science exhibit (now permanent) at the Brighton Sea Life centre, that was both a psycho-physics research experiment and an explanatory demonstration of how one’s eye movements interrogate a complex scene and respond to unexpected events. As another example, we have spent years gathering validation data for advanced CMOS electrodes, and have invested extensive resources in sharing this data with the broader scientific and non-scientific community (e.g. there was event at SWC dedicated to exploring these datasets with professional musicians, as well as number of VR projects in collaboration with groups at Central St. Martins and the Bartlett).

As you know, and as I discussed with [name redacted] on Friday, I have clearly understood my mandate as a group leader at the [institute name redacted] to pursue both neuroscience research and to explore new ways to do neuroscience research. With this understanding, I felt justified to pursuing these projects, many of which make up the bulk of Danbee’s thesis.

My personal view is that neuroscience has a unique, and largely untapped, potential relative to other domains of science. Unlike particle physics, for example, a lay person’s knowledge about the brain, its role in one’s own behaviour and the behaviour of others, is significant, as it is necessary for navigating the complexity of human society. Most of the research/engagement projects that my lab has pursued have focused on finding novel ways to “tap” this potential…both to aid neuroscience research, and to improve society.

Both Danbee and I have been intrigued by the power of “a good story”, and its impact on collective understanding in society, since the beginning of her PhD project. (…from why are (human) brains capable of such coordination? …to what aspects of a story are most effective?). Given my (and Danbee’s) interest in engaging the broad base of “lay expertise” in neuroscience research, it thus felt obvious to pursue this via an actual “story” that we could publish in a variety of formats and with a professional quality sufficient to attract a large audience (hence the need to recruit people who can actually draw).

I hope this helps explain where I was coming from, and my goals for this project and Danbee’s thesis. Thank you for highlighting the public engagement funding scheme; we are working on the application right now (but we would appreciate some clarification on the deadline for this current round of funding).

I still feel that this project, like the others in my lab, represents a mix of research and engagement, and that it should be possible to support this with lab funds, although I recognize that this may not be the view of our funders. Towards clarifying their goals, Danbee had already contacted Helen Craig from UCL Culture, cc’ed, to offer the UCL perspective, and she has very kindly provided the attached letter. I would be very happy to contact both Wellcome and Gatsby to explain my views on this (and the other projects in my lab), if you think this could help justify the use of lab budget given the funders’ goals.

Please let me know how to proceed, and thanks for your time,

After receiving these letters of support on February 5, 2019, the directors provided no official written response to Dr. Kampff’s email for more than 3 months.

Thanks to the staunch support of Helen Craig and our institute’s communications manager, the institute’s Public Engagement Fund was able to grant us a generous award on February 22, 2019, which could cover part of the contractualized payments; however, we are still 5,960 GBP short of the amount necessary to pay the artists in full.

Given the decision made by our host institution’s directors, and with the encouragement of our colleagues, friends, and family, Dr. Kampff and I decided to ask our wider community of collaborators and supporters for help. We will launch a crowdfunding campaign to raise the money necessary to pay our artist collaborators the full amount that was stipulated by contract when they first signed onto the project - a reasonable and fair compensation for their time and skills.

If you would like to help us meet this goal, please JOIN OUR MAILING LIST to get updates on the crowdfunding campaign, and THANK YOU SO MUCH, from all of us working on The First VIRS!

Project Credits

Anncharlott Berglar
Anncharlott Berglar: Scientific Diagram 4 Illustrator and Colourist

My educational background is in the field of the natural sciences and I received my PhD in Biology in 2015 from the Institut Pasteur Paris in France.
I now work as a freelance scientific illustrator and Adobe software coach for scientists. In parallel I am studying a Master’s in Knowledge Visualization at the Zurich University of the Arts.


Kuang-Ting (Emma) 
Kuang-Ting (Emma) Cheng: Scientific Diagram 2 Illustrator and Colourist

Dr. Emma Cheng has received professional training in medicine and design. In medicine, she has clinical and industrial experiences in general medicine, rehabilitation, and cosmetic medicine. In design, she has worked on various projects in visual design and UX design. Her artwork has been included in the 2016 Asia illustration collection. She is also one of the winners in the 2015 Hiii illustration competition.
With her passion for medicine, design, and art, she founded EMA & D medical gifts shop, to make medical knowledge more accessible to people. Her aspiration is to combine her skills in medicine and design to make the world a better place. With that ambition, she attended a biomedical innovation program in Stanford university in 2017. She is currently a cosmetic medicine doctor and a medical illustrator.


Gil Costa
Gil Costa: Scientific Diagram 3 Illustrator and Colourist

Gil Costa is a Biologist, born in Sintra, Portugal. He started his professional path as a Designer for Science, for both public outreach and communication among scientific peers, after finishing his Neurosciences PhD. He has worked for scientists around the globe designing quality figures for publishing, covers for high impact scientific journals and multiple graphic material for press, events, reports and exhibitions. In his scientific research he studied the field of decision making and acquired skills in behavioural training, neuronal recording and data analysis. This scientific background helps him convey clarity, accuracy and salience to science communication, with a spark of creativity, just to add a bit of flavor.


Jennifer Deutscher: Scientific Diagram 5 Illustrator and Colourist

Jennifer (Jenn) Deutscher grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, and spent much of her childhood exploring the American West. These travels exposed her to the wonders of the natural world, which is perhaps why she ignored all sound career advice in order to work as a freelance scientific illustrator. She believes all science can be made accessible, engaging, and visually compelling. Aside from her client work, Jenn also publishes a series of weekly illustrated science facts under her online handle, Alithographica. She holds a degree in biological sciences and illustration from New York University as well as a certificate in botanical art and illustration from the New York Botanical Garden, and now resides in Brooklyn with her ever-growing plant collection.


Dominique Duong
Dominique Duong: Chapter 5 title page artist, Chapter 5 Illustrator and Colourist

Dominique Duong is an illustrator and comic artist working in London, UK. She graduated with First Class Honours in Illustration & Visual Communication from the University of Westminster.
Her work has been published by Imagine FX, The Covent Gardener, Bone & Ink Press, Trawler, AppBox Media and Lise London, among others.
Since her illustration career began, she’s worked on editorial and book illustration, theatre set designs, concept art, story-boarding and comics.
She’s fascinated by the macabre, surreal and magical, with mythology, fairy tales, nature and folklore all being huge influences, but it’s storytelling that forms the heart of her work.


Matteo Farinella
Matteo Farinella: Chapter 1 Illustrator and Colourist

Matteo Farinella received a PhD in neuroscience from University College London in 2013. Since then he has been combining his scientific expertise with a life-long passion for drawing, producing educational comics, illustrations and animations. He is the author of Neurocomic (Nobrow 2013) published with the support of the Wellcome Trust, The Senses (Nobrow 2017) and other science comics. He has worked with universities and educational institutions around the world to make science more clear and accessible.


Gideon Gerlt
Gideon Gerlt: Graphic Novel title page artist, Chapter 6 pages 9-12 Illustrator and Colourist, and Chapter 7 title page artist

Early on, Gideon Gerlt’s creativity was strongly influenced by the vibrant natural environment of rural Alaska. Exploring the wilderness in the shadow of Denali mountain with so little human contact, instilled in him a curiosity about the unseen world that existed in such great abundance and yet felt elusive. This sense of mystery has worked alongside a pursuit to explore individual and societal concepts of self and other, covering a broad range of topics from interpersonal relationships, to concepts of consciousness and artificial intelligence, and an exploration of the microbial world.

Gideon’s recent works explore the intersection between art, science, and technology. Splicing geometric shapes and architectural design with structures found in nature, these works reflect on correlations between micro and macroscopic worlds. Inspired by a fascination with biological systems and processes Gideon has created site-specific, interactive, multimedia installations that have emulated organic complexity through iterative patterns. These works have suggestively represented bacteria, protozoa, neurons, mirror cells, and DNA.


Melissa Jedrysiak
Melissa Jedrysiak: Scientific Diagram 7 Illustrator and Colourist

Melissa Jedrysiak is a scientific illustrator of Filipina and Polish descent. She was born and raised in Chicago, and she graduated from DePaul University with a B.S. in Biology. In her spare time, she can be found tending to her urban garden, playing soccer, or sipping a cup of delicious tea.


Monica Keszler
Monica Keszler: Chapter 3 title page artist

Monica Keszler is a recent chemical engineering graduate from Northeastern University and a freelance educational comic artist. She contributes quarterly pedagogical comics to the journal of Chemical Engineering Education and has spent several years collaborating and developing educational comics with students and faculty at Northeastern University. She has also written and illustrated her own children’s book, Kira Kiwi, How Will School Be?, focusing on the importance of diversity and acceptance. She works full-time in materials engineering research and development and hopes to one day join the pursuit of creating sustainable plastic alternatives.


Danbee 'Tauntaun' Kim
Danbee ‘Tauntaun’ Kim: Story and Lettering, Scientific Diagram Descriptions, Scientific Diagram 6 Illustrator and Colourist

I’m currently a PhD candidate in the 2013 cohort of the International Neuroscience Doctoral Programme, headquartered at the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown in Lisboa, Portugal. I joined the Intelligent Systems Lab in Sept 2013 and moved with the lab to the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour in London, UK in 2015.
My research combines studies of cuttlefish, the philosophy of science, Perceptual Control Theory, and the evolution of “the brain” throughout time and in many species. In collaboration with NeuroGears, I build interactive art installations that both allow people to participate in field neuroscience experiments, and communicate science in fun and interesting ways. You can learn more at www.EveryMind.Online.
I spend a lot of time thinking about permaculture, anarchy, circus, and education. I love being in the wilderness, especially in the mountains and by the sea. I’ve co-written and choreographed an original musical called Hack, Punt, Tool (you can watch the 2017 production on YouTube). I train and play as a musician, capoeirista, and VIRS (vigilante intergalactic roustabout scholar).

Emma 'Solei' Leavitt
Emma ‘Solei’ Leavitt: Dream Sequences Illustrator and Colourist

Solei is a visual artist, muralist and musician living in Boston, MA. Her work on the “Dreams” chapters of The First VIRS is her first foray into graphic novel illustration. When she’s not painting on walls or writing music, Solei runs an arts nonprofit in Boston called Brain Arts Organization, and is the Gallery Director at a community art gallery called the Dorchester Art Project. More of her work can be seen at

Graham Marema
Graham Marema: Chapter 3 Illustrator and Colourist

Graham Marema is an American digital artist from the blue mountains of East Tennessee. She currently lives in the taller, browner mountains of Colorado, working on digital campaigns for Environment America, specifically focused on work around clean, renewable energy.

Miguel Soler 
Miguel Soler Montellano: Chapter 2 title page artist, Chapter 2 Illustrator and Colourist

Miguel Soler Montellano, was born in Granada, Spain in 1983. He studied fine arts in Granada, Munich (Germany) and Salvador de Bahia (Brasil). He lives and works in Berlin since 2011, where apart from painting and drawing, he develops a experimental music project called Automatenfall. He writes about himself in third person.


Priyanka Das 
Priyanka Das Rajkakati: Chapter 6 title page artist

An Aerospace engineer by profession, and an artist at heart, I am a Space geek who loves challenging projects that mix Art and Science. Currently pursuing a PhD in Satellite Navigation Technology, I also dedicate a part of my waking hours to artistic endeavours and commissions so that it doesn’t just remain a hobby, overshadowed by math equations (which are also aesthetic in a way).


Sara Vukson
Sara Vukson: Scientific Diagram 1 Illustrator and Colourist

Sara is a biomedical illustrator and animator based out of Toronto. Illuminating the beauty in the world of science, as well as making the complex interesting rather than intimidating has been a fascination.


Jesso Wang
Jesso Wang: Chapter 7 Illustrator and Colourist

Jesso is an illustrator, vr developer, and apprentice tattoo artist. Transplant from Illinois to New England, plant mom and bicycler. She loves storytelling in all mediums and making art of science.


Xiao Xiao
Xiao Xiao: Chapter 1 title page artist

Xiao Xiao is a multimedia artist and human computer interaction researcher. Her doctoral research from the Media Lab has been published at academic conferences around the world, including CHI, TEI, SIGGRAPH, and NIME. As multimedia artist, Xiao has presented at venues such as TEDxBoston and the Aspen Ideas Festival. New art works will be on exhibit at the Historic New Orleans Collection in 2019. Deeply curious about the art of learning across domains, Xiao was co-editor and illustrator for the book Inventive Minds: Marvin Minsky on Education, forthcoming with the MIT Press. In her spare time, Xiao practices yoga, paints, and teaches herself how to play the theremin.


Julia Zimmerman
Julia Zimmerman: Chapter 4 title page artist, Chapter 4 Illustrator and Colourist, Chapter 6 pages 1-8 Illustrator and Colourist

Julia Zimmerman is an artist and student living in an old house in Vermont with her partner and two cats. She is happy to be involved with the First VIRS project because it explores how intellectual or creative work is the product of multiple people and organizations, and because it attempts to cross some of the silos we haven’t yet figured out how to avoid creating when we specialize. She is generally interested in thought as a resource that takes place outside the individual level, alongside language - across people, time, and organizations - and loves being involved with a project exploring that lens.


Some final thoughts from Carl Sagan

“Real science is as amenable to exciting and engrossing fiction as fake science, and I think it is important to exploit every opportunity to convey scientific ideas in a civilization based upon science but somehow unable to communicate what science is about.

In all the history of the world there has never before been a period in which so many significant changes have occurred in so short a span of time. Accommodation to change, the thoughtful pursuit of alternative futures, is the key to the survival of civilization and perhaps of humanity. Ours is also the time of the first generation that has grown up with science fiction. I know many young people who would, of course, be interested, but in no way astounded, were we to receive a message tomorrow from an extraterrestrial civilization. They have already accommodated to that future. I think it is not an exaggeration to say that, if we survive, science fiction will have made a vital contribution to the continuation and benign evolution of our civilization.”

Growing Up with Science Fiction, by Carl Sagan, 1978.

Project License

Creative Commons Licence
Vigilante Intergalactic Roustabout Scholars (VIRS) by Danbee Kim is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at
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