To explain the environmental impact of climate change on migratory sea birds, Dr. Cara Gormally could write a lengthy paper filled with technical jargon and statistics. But the Biology professor, who specializes in science literacy and diversifying the STEM fields, has instead been drawing comics featuring adorable baby puffins.

“I think it connects to the audience better, and you can make the animals talk,” says Gormally, who uses the pronouns they/them. Their passion for creating science-based comics has blossomed in the decade they have been at Gallaudet and teaching in American Sign Language. “Comics are a visual, and really rich, way of communicating,” Gormally explains. They snagged a book deal with Street Noise Books for a memoir, REBOOT, set to publish in 2025, and have the puffin project and other ideas in the works.

A self-taught artist, Gormally began creating comics in graduate school as a hobby. When they started trying to get pregnant in 2015, these sketches helped them chronicle the process and the scientific tidbits they picked up along the way. “One of my favorite things is to do a research deep dive, and I was learning so many myth-busting things,” they say. After their kid was born, Gormally found there were even more comics they wanted to make — and publish.

As Gormally’s interest grew, they created a General Studies course in 2019 that taught students how to make comics. “We started by looking at a trifecta of depressing topics: infertility, HIV, and cancer,” they say. Students had to comb through research, hunt for references, judge the quality of sources of scientific information, and then translate what they discovered into images, captions, and thought bubbles. None of this requires much artistic talent, adds Gormally, who notes that it’s more about the science and the story. Stick figures and rough outlines can still make for an effective comic.

Comic strip showing a person on the left standing and a person laying down with words in bubbles about science.
One of Dr. Cara Gormally’s current projects is making comics about climate change that look at the lives of puffins. The image above comes from their comic about tonic immobility, which was printed in The Washington Post and is part of Gormally’s forthcoming memoir. The full comic is pinned on the @cara_gormally Instagram account.

Gormally was consistently impressed by what the students produced, particularly one by an older student who had lived through the AIDS crisis. “It’s made me want to make my own comics more personal,” they say. “Their vulnerability made me willing to make myself more vulnerable.”

Science comics can just explain the facts, or they can reflect the creator’s emotions and experiences. Gormally leaned into the latter as they started to dig into their feelings related to being sexually assaulted years earlier and learned about the concept of tonic immobility. “It was a light bulb moment that shattered all of this self-blame I had,” Gormally says. “Why don’t we all know this?”

So they laid it out in a series of panels. In one, a head hovers by a body encased in ice and shouts: “Push him off!” “Run! Get out of there!” “Why don’t you do something?” Later, a drawing of Gormally reads from a computer screen, “Tonic immobility is a physiological state of being frozen.” Then the drawing of Gormally comforts the body in ice with more information about how this is an instinctual defense mechanism, common across the animal kingdom, as a way to survive. A limp rabbit hanging in a fox’s mouth, and other images help reinforce this message. In the end, the drawing of Gormally embraces the formally frozen, but now thawed, body to say, “I’m sorry.”

This powerful comic, which was published in The Washington Post last summer and is part of Gormally’s upcoming memoir, is indicative of the kind of work they pursue. The creation process always begins with a scientific inquiry. “I read tons about it. Then I move to summarizing it. What are the key parts? What is the evidence? How does this relate to my life? And what are the images? I like to keep words minimal,” Gormally says.

That is why Gormally wants to tell the story of climate change through those adorable puffins. When puffin parents accidentally feed plastic to their chicks and can’t find any of the hake they need to survive, it is easy to relate to that as a parent. “Will my grandchildren have water without plastic in it? The stuff happening to puffins is happening to every species,” they say.

Pictures can tell this story faster, and they will hit the reader in a different way than an article or paper. With a comic, Gormally says, it’s easier to answer a critical question in science: “Why should we care?”

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