#MySciComm: Bethann Garramon Merkle on merging art and science to enhance scicomm

This week, Bethann Garramon Merkle responds to the #MySciComm questions!

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Sketching hares at University of Arizona Vertebrate Museum; image courtesy of Bethann Garramon Merkle

Bethann is an artist, writer, instructor, editor, and consultant who blends visual storytelling and science communication. She’s also a SciComm Section co-founder, the section chair-elect, and our webmaster. She is passionate about a) integrating drawing into education, research, and communication efforts, and b) the role stories play in shaping public perspectives of science and ecology topics. Connect with her @CommNatural and www.ecologicallytruestory.org.

The #MySciComm series features a host of SciComm professionals. We’re looking for more contributors, so please get in touch if you’d like to write a post!


Okay, Bethann…

1) How did you get into the kind of SciComm that you do?

I have my high school biology and art teachers to thank.

They encouraged my interest in both disciplines. But I was a small-town kid and a first-generation college student, and a career in illustration wasn’t tangible or comprehensible to me for years.

In college, after deciding against an engineering career, I stumbled upon, and was accepted into, a year-long program that required students to keep a field journal

I now understood how to blend my interest in science and art, and I spent inordinate time doing so.

But, some of my classmates had a really hard time with the journal, until I gave a short introductory workshop on using watercolors. Turns out that was only art training they’d ever received, and they’d hated the field journal because they couldn’t draw.

I wound up teaching introductory sketching workshops for that program for several years, and found a work study position drawing aquatic insects and teaching field journaling. Over time, my interest in drawing and teaching expanded to science journalism and academic manuscript editing, which is how I became aware of #SciComm. Today, I wear two main hats – artist/communicator and consultant.

My work as a writer/illustrator ranges from straightforward commissions such as these illustrations about assessing biodiversity to labors of love like being a citizen science volunteer for an amphibian monitoring project, along with personal projects like The Ecologically True Story of the Tortoise and the Hare.

I also collaborate with researchers, universities, educators, and organizations interested in using drawing to communicate and teach about biological sciences. I do a fair amount of consulting and teach workshops that enhance participants’ drawing skills and help educators at all levels (k12+ university) devise practical and feasible ways of using drawing to teach and assess student understanding.

2) What are your top 3 SciComm tips and/or resources?

1. We can all can get better at visual communication.

Like most skill sets, drawing, graphic design, photography, and even graph/figure (and conference poster!) creation require training and practice.

2. Drawing is a powerful way to enhance learning and assessment in science classes.

See my suggestions for integrating drawing into university-level biology courses as a (heavily footnoted with resources and research) start.

3. My favorite specific resources for enhancing visual communication skills include:

#SciArt on Twitter, Felice Frankel’s Visual Strategies: A practical guide to graphics for scientists & engineers, David Hyerel’s Visual Tools for Constructing Knowledge and A Field Guide to Using Visual Tools, any “how to draw” book by Cathy Johnson, and lots of resources I’ve reviewed in my newsletters and on my blog.