We are accepting pre-proposals for our 2024 biennial research competition through Jan. 20. Find out more here.
I grew up in New York and have lived in Maryland for a year. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned since moving here, it’s that Marylanders love their state symbols–especially their flag and their crab. Sure, they cherish their natural resources, but it’s the blue crab that they crave all year long.
So when the University System of Maryland sent out an email in January of 2020 presenting a public service announcement (PSA) competition, I thought of the state crustacean. The competition sought to gather creative messages for fighting pandemic fatigue and to encourage people to get vaccinated.
I currently study the DNA fish leave behind to detect their presence or absence in the water. Being able to move this technique beyond presence/absence and on to estimates of abundance allows us to better understand and protect the communities that use the Chesapeake Bay. What makes my research on molecular approaches to tracking fish populations so rewarding is knowing that it can be appreciated by not only the scientific community, but also the general public.
With my research topic and my beloved adopted state in mind, I wanted to create a COVID-19 PSA that embodied aspects of Maryland pride—the blue crab (Callinectes sapidus) of the Chesapeake Bay was the obvious choice! And I didn’t have to ponder too much about how to draw the masks that Marylanders would wear. Our state residents love nothing more than wearing our flag on their pajamas, baseball hats, and flip flops. Why not also wear it on a face mask?
I developed a comic strip story about a heroic blue crab who learned of a strange human virus that sent people hiding indoors: distraught that his beloved Marylanders would be trapped inside for the summer once again, the Vaccination Crustacean springs into action!
The Vaccination Crustacean comic strip. Credit: Chelsea Fowler
I submitted my comic and much to my delight the judges chose it as one of the competition’s six winners.
It was fun to hone my creativity and connect with people in that way. Since I created the Vaccination Crustacean, I’ve thought about how I can use this form of communication to talk about topics in science. What types of characters and storylines can we find in big topics like climate change? Or in curious questions like: why is the sky blue?
Soon, I hope to apply this comic strip style of science communication to my own research story. Perhaps my main character will be an elusive school of fish who star in a tale of how we used the DNA they left behind to locate them.
Graphic, top left: Chelsea Fowler’s vaccination crustacean. Credit: Chelsea Fowler