Matthew Partridge, Cartoonist (Episode 15) | Matthew wants to help us see the funny side of science
“I have to start from before I even did any research to explain that I was a stupid kid once. When I was about 16 or 17 the school arranged to have some scientists come in to do a mock interview about what would be like working in a lab. At that age, I wanted to work in research, but I wanted to work in the word ‘research’. I didn’t know what that meant. And they said, ‘Why did you want to work in research?’ And I said, ‘I think I could deal with the boredom’. They just cracked up laughing and I quietly died inside”
This week Sarah’s guest on the Research Adjacent podcast is research-adjacent cartoonist Matthew Partridge. Matthew founded science communication website and webcomic ErrantScience in 2016. Initially a fun side-project alongside his day job in fibre-optics research, it has grown to become a full-time business which provides cartoons and outreach materials, live cartooning, training and support for a range of clients.
Motivated to banish misinformation
In his own words Matthew was ‘a stupid kid once’ who wanted to go into research, but didn’t really know what that meant. Remembering his experiences at school he wanted to make sure that other young people considering a career in science had a better idea of what it was really like. So he became a STEM Ambassador and also started a blog to practice his communication skills. Worried that the blog was a bit dry he began creating little cartoons to accompany the text.
“I quickly realised that if I was going to show anybody the blog, I couldn’t just show people a wall of text. It needed to have an image. I didn’t want to just steal images off Google, so I made a little cartoon that went with it. It was drawn where you click and drag a circle, and then underneath it, I’d click and drag another circle for body, and then two little circles for hands and two little circles for feet. And the little character was called Diss. And it was just to provide a little bit of levity to my slightly badly written, full of spelling mistakes articles.”
The blog didn’t take off, but the outreach and the cartoons did. Soon Matthew was writing a departmental blog, creating daily cartoons, doing more outreach (including a show at the Edinburgh Fringe) and events, all alongside his research job. Then life threw a fork in the road and after becoming a single parent Matthew decided that the cartooning was easier to fit around family life (and more fun) so took the leap and left research.
Cartooning everything from news to noodles
ErrantScience now works with a wide range of clients from individual PhD students to noodle companies. Matthew and his colleagues create bespoke cartoons, do live cartooning for events and train others – all in the name of communicating science and the reality of life in the lab. Matthew described two projects he is particularly proud of – his ongoing collaborations with Laboratory News and the Royal Society of Chemistry Twitter Poster Competition. For Laboratory News he has produced a monthly cartoon about the funnier side of lab life for 6 years now. For the Royal Society of Chemistry ErrantScience takes on the slightly bonkers task of live-cartooning as many of the Twitter-submitted research posters as possible within 24 hours. To see the 2023 cartoons check out this blog post.
The benefits of better communication
Like so many of my guests Matthew wishes that outreach was more highly valued and that employers understood the benefits of supporting researchers to communicate better – whether that’s with school children or peers attending a scientific conference.
“There’s always the supportive people, but there’s always that resistance… ‘You’re spending an hour writing this article. That’s an hour you could have spent in the lab. Why aren’t you in the lab? You should be in the lab.’ And for a young researcher, that was quite a hurdle to get over. You really do have to have a bit of a thick skin and you really have to be a bit determined that this is a good thing to be doing.”
Perhaps if more researchers felt they could explore outreach and communication in a light-hearted way, as Matthew did, we would all reap the benefits!
Find out more
- Visit the ErrantScience website or connect with Matthew on Discord, Mastadon or Instagram
- Watch their training on ‘How to Cartoon Your Science’
- Check out this year’s RSC Twitter Poster Competition cartoons
- Subscribe to the Psci-Com mailing list
- Chloe Rodgers science illustration
- Eliza Wolfson’s LabRats! webcomic
How was it for you…?
Sign up for episode notifications
If you want to be the first to hear new episodes then please subscribe in your favourite podcast app, follow the podcast on Twitter or sign up below for email notifications.