Drawing on fun to bridge science gap

Dr Jorge Cham, who interviewed to be a robotics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology but did not get it, says it "turned out to be the best thing that's happened to me".
Dr Jorge Cham, who interviewed to be a robotics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology but did not get it, says it "turned out to be the best thing that's happened to me".ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Dr Jorge Cham, the creator of Piled Higher and Deeper, popularly known as PHD Comics, began the strip as a robotics PhD student at Stanford University in 1997. Now, the full-time artist's work is testament to his appeal - his comics website gets millions of unique visitors yearly. In Singapore recently to conduct a masterclass organised by Asian Scientist Magazine, he spoke with Jose Hong about what drives him to bridge the gap between science and the public.

Q You interviewed to be a robotics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), but did not get it. Now, as an artist, do you ever regret that?

A Not getting into MIT turned out to be the best thing that's happened to me. I really enjoy what I'm doing now, and I'm very passionate about it, and it's a lot of fun. I don't really think in terms of regret and looking back in that way.

Q What is your mission in life?

A A big mission in my life now is to bridge the gap between science and the public.

I feel like there are fewer people trying to bridge that gap than somebody trying to do robotics, and I have this unique opportunity which I would not have had if I was just a robotics professor.

Q How do you bridge that gap?

A The comic strip, PHD Comics, is a way to poke fun at the people behind academia and to poke fun at ourselves, meaning that we're human beings and we have egos and that we do silly things sometimes.

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I think if more people saw that scientists were humans, we could then have a more honest conversation about science not always being right but being the best way to figure out the truth.

  • DR JORGE CHAM

  • AGE: 41

    CITIZENSHIP: Panamanian and American

    WHERE HE LIVES: Los Angeles

    NUMBER OF PHD COMIC STRIPS DRAWN: Almost 2,000

    BOOKS SOLD: About 100,000 of his five comic compilations in total. He co-authored We Have No Idea, a humorous look at the universe's big questions, published in May.

    SITE VISITORS TO PHD COMICS: Six to seven million unique visitors yearly, about 55 million in the past 12 years

    FILMS MADE: The PHD Movie (2011) and The PHD Movie 2: Still In Grad School (2015)

    TALKS DELIVERED: Nearly 300 worldwide

    FAMILY: His wife, Ms Suelika Chial, 42, is a project manager.

    Son, Oliver is seven, and daughter Elinor is four

    BRAINY GENES: His parents both taught at the University of Panama. Dr Cham is the second of four siblings. Brother Jaime, 44, earned a master's degree in electrical engineering at Stanford University. Sister Carmen, 37, pursued a master's in architecture at the University of California, Los Angeles. Second sister Laura, 35, completed her master's in transportation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Q What still frustrates you when it comes to science communication?

A That there's no space in our discourse for nuance. Look, for example, at the debate on climate change.

There's a general idea that science is always right, and scientists want people to trust them. At the same time, people on the opposing side want to make it seem as if scientists are not always right. So which is the truth?

The truth is that they're not always right.

That's difficult for the scientists to admit to, and it's something that climate change deniers take advantage of.

What gets lost is the idea that science is not always right, but it's kind of the best way we have with knowing what is right.

I think it's a two-step argument: Scientists aren't always right, but science is the best way of determining the truth.

I would say scientists should admit that they're not always right, but they need to be more forceful about that second step. And people on the other side need to be more honest and listen for that second part of the sentence.

Q How much of your audience is made up of non-academics?

A There's no way to poll the millions of people who read my comics a year, but I would say that it's primarily in the academic environment.

Q If your audience comes mainly from academia, could you really say you've achieved your goals of humanising those in academia?

A Well I would say that the tail end of 55 million Web visitors is still a nice number.

Q There is a stereotype of Asian people in America being nerds or geeks. A lot of what you do has to do with breaking barriers and bridging gaps. Do you think that you being a cartoonist breaks that stereotype?

A What I would say is that one of the most common questions I get when I give a lecture or a speaking engagement is: "What did your parents think when you told them you wanted to become a cartoonist?" And about 90 per cent of the time, it's an Asian person asking me that.

Q What are your failures?

A I've had many failures - For example, I'm not a professor at MIT (laughs). But for me, it's always been just about following the right opportunities.

When I first became a cartoonist, what I saw as success meant being a print newspaper cartoonist or one who publishes books. Nobody at that time was a successful Web comics cartoonist.

But because I didn't succeed in these other traditional areas I devoted my time and energy to Web comics to make that a success.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 14, 2017, with the headline 'Drawing on fun to bridge science gap'. Print Edition | Subscribe