Black, Indigenous and other People of Color (BIPOC) Voices: Interview with Christine Liu
Christine Liu, PhD is a researcher at the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute at UC Berkeley and an artist specializing in graphic design, science communication, illustration, and tattoos.
What are some of the key experiences that shaped your path in science, art, and science communication?
There’s a pervasive idea that science and art are on opposite sides of a spectrum, or emerge from opposite sides of the brain. These are myths that I’ve learned might be a symptom of traditional American education. As I gained more experience in both art and science, I saw firsthand how much practitioners in each realm relied on similar skills and ways of thinking. Science communicators in particular are great examples for showing how creativity, problem-solving, curiosity, communication, and knowing your audience are very important for success. Experiencing reactions from people who encounter my work, whether they are art enthusiasts at community events or scientists at research conferences, has fueled my interest and self-confidence in merging science and art. There’s a very specific energy of excitement when engaging with folks who are inspired by the unknown and the capability to access novel ideas to share with others, and I feel this energy often with scientists, artists, and science communicators. While my motivations for making art and doing science all come from a personal, intrinsic place, I am also energized by the feedback I get from others and I am constantly being shaped by how others perceive my work.
How would you define “zines” in the context of your work? What got you interested in them as a communication approach, and what influenced the style that you developed?
Zines, pronounced “zeen” like in “magazine,” are DIY art booklets that gained popularity in counter-culture creative movements in the 1980s and 90s. Because they didn’t need to get past a publisher or editor, people could easily share information and ideas. All they needed was access to a printer, paper, and a stapler, which allowed people from all sorts of backgrounds (particularly the disenfranchised) to self-publish. I got started making zines when my close friend, Tera Johnson, introduced them to me when we were brainstorming ways to make art together to stay in touch. With her environmental science background and my neuroscience background, we set out to create a handful of zines introducing these topics in the four months before the East Bay Alternative Book and Zine Fest in December 2015. To apply for a table at the zine fest, we needed to come up with a name, and “Two Photon Art” was born! We drew and hand-lettered everything ourselves, printing and stapling a couple dozen black-and-white booklets to share information about volcanoes, face blindness, and neuroscience research with the East Bay arts community. When we got there, we were introduced to so many sources of inspiration, ranging from people who had decades of zine-making experience to newcomers like ourselves. This vibrant, DIY, eclectic, and grungy art scene resonated with us a lot, especially when we heard from attendees how much they loved our accessible science communication through the zines. We knew then and there that we could make an impact with our art and science communication, even if our creations weren’t perfect. Since then, we have embraced simplicity and imperfection as styles to reach a wide audience.
Has your research in neuroscience and nicotine addiction been in any way influenced by your experiences with making sci-comm zines, jewelry, and other art?
Absolutely! There are countless ways that being an artist has positively influenced my research career. Beyond the obvious benefits of building fine-motor and figure-making skills, making art has definitely influenced my research. There are few feelings more satisfying to me than succeeding in an experiment for which I had low expectations, just like the feeling of turning a blank canvas into something remarkable. But, failures and uneventful outcomes are often on the path in pursuit of those exciting moments. Viewing both research and art as practices that take time, and seeing all failed attempts as experience gained in the grand scheme of things, are helpful when it feels like I’m inching along. Second, people in science often joke about quitting their research career to start a bakery or become a painter, but having experienced the slog of actually running an art business helped me realize that there are boring, difficult aspects of all kinds of work. For me, the trick is to balance all of my different interests and pursuits in a way that energizes me rather than burning me out. Lastly, the greatest joy I experience in both art and science is sharing the outcome and experiencing the creations of others. Art and science are both ways of interpreting nature and communicating its wonders to others, and my experience making science zines and art products has taught me how much more impactful it is when I take the extra step to make sure I’m communicating my scientific results with clarity.
Are you intentionally trying to reach specific audiences with communication work, and if so, what do you know about how they experience it?
Yes, whenever I try to communicate a scientific topic, the audience is always at the forefront of my mind. Each time I set out to communicate something, I ask myself who will be in the audience. I think about their background, their interests, their experience with the topic, and what emotions they may have about it. These factors all play a role in how they are approaching the topic, and therefore how they may perceive the information I’m providing. Too much background may be too slow of a start for an experienced audience member, but too little background leaves the unoriented without enough context to understand the story. Whenever possible, I try to get feedback from someone I consider to be part of the target audience. This can mean asking a colleague in my lab to read over a paper or grant proposal, or it might mean posting a sneak peek of a project on social media. Once, we even printed out paper surveys for people at a zine fest to fill out! While the sample was certainly biased, it helped us understand specifically why people found zines more accessible than traditional educational products. In particular, the visual aids and the limited number of words on a single spread in a zine helped people feel less overwhelmed by scientific topics.
Resources, networks, and professional learning opportunities for science communicators have been growing steadily over the past decade, e.g., the SciComm Trainers Network, The SciCommer, The Link, and the Inclusive SciComm Symposium. Are there developments that you are particularly excited about, and do you see needs or opportunities for further supporting those who want to pursue activities in or a career as a science communicator?
I am very glad to see more resources to train science communicators and show people that this can be its very own career, or something they can gain skills on to supplement their other work! These examples are wonderful and accessible resources that can help people improve their skills and expand their scope for understanding how to communicate with broad audiences. Beyond those resources, I love seeing one-of-a-kind immersive opportunities to collaborate with others to create a project or experience something extraordinary, like the Jackson Wild Media Lab and NASA Social events.
I think the past couple of years have been disheartening for science communicators, who were sharing facts about COVID-19 but seeing them countered by societal, political, and economic pressures. Yet, I think although we have observed difficulty in science communication and have seen it backfire firsthand, these experiences can hopefully lead to more nuanced discussions on how science communicators can serve their communities. I am optimistic that the pandemic has underlined the necessity for trustworthy science communication, and that an investment should be made at every level to promote scientific literacy, education, and communication.
Can you recommend research, models, or resources to those who want to design more inclusive, evidence-informed learning or communication experiences and environments?
In general, I encourage people to try the method they have in mind, since it’s likely they know their community best, and there may not be an existing model or published research on their idea. Science communication is still a relatively new field in terms of its academic foothold, meaning that there may not yet be enough perspectives published to represent the entire library of effective teaching methods. What makes a “good” science communicator or method cannot always be assessed by others in the field; rather it’s likely the opinion of the learner that matters most, and they are rarely the ones who decide whether something gets published. For these reasons, I encourage people to forge new paths to create experiences that they think will serve their community best. That said, I think there are ways they can make their projects more accessible, and there are many resources available to do that. For example, closed captioning, translating, sign language interpretation, compatibility with screen readers, and other considerations are important for making sure people can access the information being shared. There won’t be a one-size-fits-all accessibility checklist, but going through several lists and checking in with audience members are great ways to start identifying the necessary accommodations.
Any other thoughts, ideas, or experiences that you would like to share with us?
My work as a scientist and artist has always been enhanced by listening carefully to criticism. Not every critic is worth changing your methodology for, but responding graciously to constructive criticism, especially when it is being provided by someone who has been marginalized, can significantly improve your work. It’s not easy to be on the receiving end of negative feedback, but these are opportunities for growth. In particular, it’s important not to brush off concerns regarding accessibility or potential unintended harm. Someone else’s perspective may help you realize a shortcoming of something you created, and knowing how to navigate that to make it better is key. That said, sometimes criticism is not constructive, and knowing how to disregard comments that are made out of spite rather than kindness is equally important! Noteworthy work will get a lot of attention, both good and bad, and having people you can go to for feedback and support will be important, especially when you are communicating about controversial topics.