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It is our pleasure to have Dr. Brendan Burkett, the cartoonist behind ChemScrapes to share with us his interesting life journey and viewpoints, as well as some cartoons from the ChemScrapes collection.  Brendan also collaborates with the American Chemical Society’s Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN) on Sketch Chemistry, a panel that appears monthly in the magazine.” Enjoy Reading this interview and Appreciating the drawings!

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  1. Tell Us A Little More In-depth About Yourself. How Did Your Journey With The Subject, Chemistry Start?

I developed a love for chemistry in my first year of study at the Australian National University many years ago.  I went to University with the intent to study psychology in order to maximize my chances of joining the Australian Federal Police as a graduate entry.  In my first year I studied mathematics, biochemistry, chemistry and psychology, but quickly found that chemistry was the most fun of all these subjects.  I especially loved the visual nature of chemistry and was fascinated by chemical structures and how they occupy space and interact with each other.  So, by the end of my degree, I had studied all the available chemistry courses the university offered and ended up with biochemistry being my choice for a minor.

My honours year saw me specializing in organic chemistry and this is where I discovered research was a very rewarding endeavor. As honours students, we were lucky enough to interact with first-year undergraduate students in the teaching labs, and I found this equally as rewarding.  So, with a passion for chemistry and an interest in research and teaching, pursuing a Ph.D. was a logical next step for me.  I ultimately ended up getting my dream job as an academic in New Zealand four years after completing my Ph.D.

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  1. What Inspires You In Creating Your Own Cartoons Or Artworks Related To Chemistry?

When I first started drawing chemistry cartoons, it was really to make bad puns of some of the scientific names so that I could remember them more easily for exams.  If something made me laugh, I was more likely to associate with the concept and this gave me a more fun and effective way to study.  It didn’t take long to realize that this could be a useful tool for others too, so when I started developing teaching materials I drew a lot of cartoons to reinforce concepts.  I found that people responded positively to this and if I managed to get a laugh in class, then it was a good sign people were engaged with the material.  Sometimes I would even quickly draw the cartoons on the spot in the classroom if I had an idea on the fly.

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I left academia to come to Singapore in 2008 and since then cartooning has become a bit of a hobby.  With social media platforms being heavily populated with scientists, it is easy to get exposure to a lot of good science from all over the world, which also means it is much easier to get inspired about both chemistry, and the fun that can go with it.  There is a vibrant chemistry community on social media, and most of them have a pretty good sense of humor.  It is actually through sharing educational and other cartoons on social media that I first got noticed by Chemical and Engineering News and had the opportunity to collaborate on Sketch Chemistry with them.

 

At a fundamental level, the inspiration for all my cartooning is driven by a desire to engage people in the science.  Taking, molecules, atoms or equipment and giving them human behaviours may seem ridiculous, but my experience has been that it can give people something to relate to and stimulate their interest.  If through the cartoons, I can get someone interested enough to follow up to try and find out why a scientist would think it is funny, then I feel the cartoon has served its purpose.

Another level is just to engage in pure silliness.  A lot of ChemScrapes nowadays is drawn in response to discussions happening on social media, and the cartoons are typically drawn in less than three minutes. It is this scrappy style that has gained a lot of popularity because the cartoons are drawn as part of a discussion of current events.

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Ninjahydrin

Ninhydrin a molecule that is used to stain proteins and amino acids (can also be employed to develop fingerprints).  The idea behind this cartoon was to get people to focus on the “business-end” of the molecule where all the oxygen atoms are, in order to make the structure easier to remember.

  1. What Are Your Views On The Current Publishing After 2001 As A Contributor To ACS Publication Titled, ‘Chemical Innovation’ since 1998?

Social media has had a major impact on the way we communicate and share information.  It is much easier to cross boundaries, disciplines and interact with people than it has ever been in the past.  I love the fact that most publishers have social media strategists now, and the people who write the stories are readily accessible and engage in the community.  It is an exciting time for science communicators.

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Chem Story

 The molecule on the left (“Woody”) is santalol – a fragrance molecule found in sandalwood. It is one of these “base notes” used in the fragrance industry. The molecule on the left (“Buzz”) is caffeine.  This cartoon was really designed to get people thinking about what chemicals actually are.  There is a lot of bad press about “chemicals” in products.  But really…EVERYTHING is a chemical.  When I post these cartoons on social media, I typically use a hashtag with the names of the molecule so that people can go look them up, and see what other “chatter” surrounds the molecules. 

  1. We need more people to be creative and simplify scientists, chemists, academics and other researchers way of presenting their works to the general public.” What Do You Think Of The Current Movements In The World And Singapore?

I believe part of the responsibility of a professional scientist is to find a way to communicate with non-experts and I think that the need to do so is recognized globally.  This is particularly important in a world where anyone can start a website and spread misinformation about science.  Chemistry and chemicals, in general, seem to carry a lot of bad press, so active engagement to demystify the field is important.  Social media is very effective for this and there are some great infographics being produced specifically to stimulate peoples’ interest – for example, “Compound Interest”. In Singapore, there are many great activities through the Science Centre (eg. Science in the cafe), National Science Week (National Science Challenge, Xperiment, etc), the One-North festival, Science buskers and so on.  All of these activities see professional scientists interacting with students and the public in an attempt to make research more open, accessible and fun.

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Marc Antimony meets Chloropatra

This was just drawn to help remember symbols of the elements.

  1. What’s next for ‘ChemScrapes’ and your personal message which you want everybody to know and perhaps try to do something in the creative field?

ChemScrapes continues to be a hobby that I pursue in the downtime between work and family commitments.  Every now and then, there is an opportunity to participate in community outreach and to work with researchers to produce cover art for their publications.  I also draw other cartoons about things I am interested in, but chemistry is where my heart lies. I am thinking to do a book of explanations in the future to explain the science behind the more popular cartoons that I have had a lot of queries about.

The Sketch Chemistry collaboration is a lot of fun and I will continue to do this with Chemical and Engineering News for as long as they feel the feature adds value to their magazine and social media platforms.  We have had a fairly positive response so far, so we will see what the future holds.

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The Curse of Lactic acid

This is another one designed to help remember the structure of lactic acid and, again, to reinforce the fact that chemicals are everywhere. I honestly had a cramp in my foot when I did this.

To me, innovation and creativity are all intrinsically linked.  It doesn’t matter if you are a scientist, a student or an accountant – the development of new solutions, processes and pathways all require a person to be creative. A lot of people automatically associate creativity with the arts but I don’t think this is the case.  In fact, my belief is that communication itself is an art, and it doesn’t matter about your ability to draw, paint or sculpt –  it is all about making a connection between your subject matter and something that matters to your audience.  So if I had a personal message to send, it would be to simply have a go.

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