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. Once published, both the graphic novel and my full thesis will be made freely viewable online and as a downloadable pdf file.

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.

We also want this graphic novel to start conversations about science, society, and storytelling, and how our brains make all three possible. 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, or if you would like to help us raise the funds to finish and print the The First VIRS,

PLEASE JOIN OUR MAILING LIST!

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.
Scientific Diagram Description #3: Major Neurotransmitters
Scientific Diagram Description #3, ‘The First VIRS’. Graphic Design and Lettering by Danbee Kim.
Scientific 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 Adam called my (not quite) bluff.

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.

Website: http://www.acb-images.com/

Kuang-Ting (Emma) Cheng
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.

Website: https://www.emmacheng.com/

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.

Website: https://www.gilcosta.com/

Jennifer Deutscher
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.

Website: http://www.alithographica.com/

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.

Website: https://domduong.com/

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.

Website: https://matteofarinella.com/

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.

Website: https://www.gideongerlt.com/

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.

Website: https://www.melissajedrysiak.com/

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.

Website: http://willowescapee.wixsite.com/artportfolio

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 https://www.soleiarts.com/.

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 Montellano
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.

Website: https://www.instagram.com/0kavango/?hl=en

Priyanka Das Rajkakati
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).

Website: https://www.behance.net/priancart

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.

Website: http://www.saravukson.com/

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.

Website: http://www.jessowang.com/

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.

Website: http://portfolio.xiaosquared.com/

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.

Website: http://juliazimmermanart.com/

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 http://www.danbeekim.org/projects/2018/02/28/VIRS-concept/.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at danbeekim.org.

Leave a Comment