A national crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic calls for clear and simple explanation of the issues at hand. An important aspect of this is to explain the general public the scientific basis of the disease and its effects, possible solutions to mitigate the spread of the disease, and find a cure over time. This task can be greatly assisted by via graphical science i.e. merging art with science which for example can lie at the intersection of comic books and biological sciences. The graphic novel ‘Bharath and Fatima learn about COVID-19’ is one such successful implementation of young protagonists asking curious questions with thought provoking answers form their uncle Raman, who is a scientist by profession and works on similar topic of interest at inStem, one of the best research institutes of India.

Amrita Tripathy (AT), from the Communications Office speaks to Dr. Arvind Ramanathan (AR) aka Uncle Raman in a freewheeling conversation about the graphic novel.

AT: How did you come up with the idea of a graphic novel to spread awareness about COVID-19?

AR: Ever since I was growing up, I’ve been an admirer of Amar Chitra Katha and it was clear to me that graphical art is an effective medium to communicate complex ideas, even more crucial for science and research topics. As a fan and creator of comics, and a faculty at inStem, it was quite obvious to me that I would want to use this medium to have effective science communication. The COVID crisis made me aware that most children and even many adults in our country do not really understand tough scientific terms and concepts like viruses, immune system, and vaccines that were being used in the media, leading to misinformation and panic. I wanted to answer this need by making graphics that can explain these concepts/terms in a simpler yet interesting way. The reception so far has been fantastic with many appreciating the comic. The characters in my comic are Bharath and Fatima who have been protagonists in a previous story book of mine, and their Uncle Raman who answers many questions works at inStem like me (and maybe looks a little like me).

AT: What are the innovative research works happening at inStem w.r.t. COVID-19?

AR: We are very proud to have a testing centre that has served our country well with nearly 45,000 samples till date. Our institute is also helping with a technology to crosslink PPE and masks with anti-viral chemicals among numerous research projects that are underway to fight COVID-19.

AT: What are the other effective means of increasing awareness around COVID-19 and scientific research, in general?

AR: The COVID-gyan website has been a wonderful tool for scientists to come together and educate the public. This multi-institutional site is where my graphic novel ‘Bharath and Fatima learn about COVID-19’ was first introduced with a new page every day. I think as scientists we have to explain important concepts in a simplified manner using figures, stories, and/or public talks. This not only helps spread knowledge and create awareness amongst the non-scientific community but also clarifies these complex scientific concepts in our own minds to prioritize problems that need to be addressed on time and eventually solved.

AT: How did you decide to come up with a collaboration for this work with Dr. Sonia Sen, also from inStem?

AR: Sonia, a colleague at inStem, had read my previous graphic novel ‘The Burning Lake’ featuring Bharath and Fatima as lead characters and she had liked the story plot. In fact, she was the one to suggest that I use ‘Bharath and Fatima’ as my lead protagonists in this current graphic novel again too. Further, she helped me write the conversations, and contributed to the scientific content and numerous edits to make the content more accessible and readable.

AT: Do you think art can impact science communication and outreach? If yes, how?

AR: Creative art forms like drawing and music cross language barriers. As an increasingly globalized world and in our country where numerous languages are spoken, art can serve as a direct yet fantastic means to communicate ideas and concepts. I hope my comic is one such example, which will be translated into multiple languages, so that we understand this disease better and come up with innovative solutions.

AT: Since when have you been working on such concepts where you’ve been using art/graphics to present science in a simplified form?

AR: Art and comics have always been my companions in my life. When I started my laboratory at inStem, and the ability to connect with numerous schools during my visits for the outreach activities, it really inspired me to use this creative form, seeing how much easier it was to communicate with young enthusiastic minds.

AT: What's your source of inspiration? Do you have any eminent cartoonists/ artists whose works inspire you a lot?

AR: Indeed, the two eminent Indian cartoonists whose works have been my inspirations are R.K. Laxman and Mario Miranda. R.K. Laxman is a timeless talent that I had the privilege of viewing and getting inspired every morning through the newspaper. His ability to use the human form subtly, articulate complex issues, and educate the public about important topics via humour and simplicity is a true inspiration for any budding caricaturist/cartoonist. Mario Miranda, another great inspiration, has a unique style – ability to capture daily life. His artwork full of quirkiness and hilarity is no doubt matchless and timeless perhaps.

There are many others including Mr. Laxman's contemporary Sir. Ronald Searle, Will Eisner, Sudhir Dhar whose works I look upon to time and again for my stimulus.

AT: Are you working/planning to work on any future projects like this?

AR: Yes! I have a comic book planned on research topics that I am passionate about like skeletal muscle, stem cells, metabolism, and aging. Be on the lookout in the near future.

While we thoroughly enjoyed this Q&A session with Arvind, you can read the graphic novel ‘Bharath and Fatima Learn about COVID-19’ here. You can also find the novel on our Facebook page.

inStem is one of the founding partners of COVID-Gyan, a pan-institutional website that has been proactive in COVID-19 outreach efforts. The constant effort of COVID-Gyan since its launch has been to create necessary awareness with proper scientific backing about COVID, busting the myths and bringing in the ongoing research across the country. Towards this effort, Dr. Arvind Ramanathan a member of the faculty at inStem, Bangalore has created an informative graphic novel which will be launched very soon.

Graphical narration (colloquially referred to as ‘comics’) has a rich history in our culture, with series such as Amar Chitra Katha demonstrating the trans-generational power of this medium. As a faculty at inStem with deep interests in cartooning and graphical narration, Arvind’s effort in developing this comic is to create awareness in non-specialist readers, especially children, about the current health crisis. The comic is based around two curious young children Bharath and Fatima who learn about COVID-19, the immune system and vaccines from their fictional uncle. We hope that this effort with anticipated translations into local languages will serve as a widespread platform for science education and communication.