Demystifying Science, Through Comics

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Demystifying Science, Through Comics by

SHARON TSHIPA

Over a decade ago career guidance and counselling was not readily accessible to those in small towns and villages. In choosing a university course to apply for, a high school graduate was either inspired by career paths taken by family members they admired, or they settled for “traditional’ career paths like law and the sciences.

When Abraham Mamela enrolled for a Media Studies degree at the University of Botswana (UB) in 2005, he had no idea what it entailed. “I was initially interested in studying Law, BSc, or being a soldier, which were the only things we knew then. My grades were the ones that made me settle for Media Studies at UB. Law was very competitive, I did not make it,” said Mamela, as his grades were low.

He found a university prospectus and came across a course called Media Studies. “I didn’t know much about what it was but I read there were video cameras and TVs involved,” he said. It was only when he started taking classes, did he have a clear understanding of what Media Studies really was. “As I was studying I started learning more about my course and possible careers. I developed a passion for TV production and Public Relations,” said Mamela

Connecting with science

Media Studies led him to a discovery which connected him with his core love for the sciences. “When I completed my course, I did a six- month internship at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I then got a job at the University of Botswana in 2010 in the Office of Research and Development as a Science Communications Officer until 2012. In 2013, I went to work in Cape Town, where I trained as a Science Communicator, then returned home in 2014,” explained Mamela.

Since then, he has been freelancing, and this enabled him time to start his own company, Infers Studios. That was when Genome Adventures was born. It is a science communication and community engagement project that makes use of cartoons and workshops to engage Batswana on genomics and biomedical research. In these adventures he simplifies, demystifies and makes science fun for high school students in Botswana.

“When I was in Cape Town I had an idea to explore comics as a medium for science communication. I also had the opportunity to go to the United Kingdom and spent some time at the Wellcome Trust where I met different experts in my field. When I returned I had an idea to apply for a grant to engage Batswana on biomedicine through comics,” he explained. To get the project off the ground he approached the Botswana Baylor Children’s Clinic and asked them to partner with him.

“All we had to do was align the grant I was applying for with the newly started genomics study in Botswana. When the funding from Wellcome Trust was received, we worked with scientists at Baylor and University of Botswana and came up with Genome Adventures comic books,” he said.

Simplifying Science

Mamela said: “Batswana have to know about science to support science.” His challenge is that science knowledge is not readily available and it’s just too complex. Therefore, Genome Adventures is a means of unpacking scientific concepts. “Launching the book was a way to make people understand the relation between genetics and our health, say for example HIV infection, why is it that some people do not get AIDS from HIV, while others cannot get AIDS. To get people talking about science and supporting science developments, you need to make platforms that allow such.”

Mamela believes that comics in general are a fun way of learning as they are easy to understand. The fact that they use narratives or storytelling makes the material in them easy to remember.

“I cannot say comics are better than other ICT forms, but the two can be intertwined. For example, uploading comics on web platforms such as social media can be very powerful or through any other technology for that matter. A project such as Genome Adventures cannot be an alternative, neither can it replace textbooks, but it can help students better understand science textbooks,” Mamela stressed.

The project printed and distributed 40 000 copies of the book to schools, towns and functions last year.

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