SK-produced COVID comics communicate pandemic science through engaging medium

Updated: Jan 7

By Greg Basky for SHRF

A team of scientists, clinicians, and students at the University of Saskatchewan has come up with a novel way to move the research evidence on COVID-19 out of academic journals and onto the pages of a more accessible medium.

The group, assembled and led by Daniel Chen, a professor in USask’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, created a comic book series entitled Healthy Hindsight. Set in the future after the pandemic subsides, it tells the story of a mother, who -- as a researcher -- was involved in developing COVID vaccines, and her school-aged son. Over the course of three issues she walks him through all of the key facts on what’s known -- and not known -- about the virus, vaccines, and the pandemic. The comics were first made available online in September 2020.

Healthy Hindsight was produced with the support of a grant from SHRF’s Research Connections: COVID-19 Rapid Response program and funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and USask’s College of Engineering.

Why a comic?

The idea behind the project was to make the vast amount of information about COVID-19 that was being published in research journals more accessible to a wider audience -- particularly young adults and children. “At the very beginning, the scientific community had access to a lot of new knowledge, but most of the information the public was getting was through the media, which was sometimes not accurate,” says Chen. “I think that this is a lesson: It’s necessary for researchers to collect information and then accurately present it directly to the public.”

Given all of the panic and potential for misunderstanding, the comic filled a niche by delivering information in an easy-to-understand, family friendly format, according to Amanda Zimmerling, a PhD student in biomedical engineering who was part of the project team. “It is important having that information presented clearly, in a way that -- as my mother likes to put it -- isn’t just understood but is hard to misunderstand.” says Zimmerling who functioned as the project’s translator, bridging the gap between the scientific and medical expert advisors and the illustrator. The series is written at a Grade 5 reading level.

Illustrator Gracelynn Wan wanted to tell the story looking back at the pandemic in the rearview mirror, from the perspective that -- in retrospect -- we feel as if everything turned out okay, because we know we’re going to get past this collectively. “I thought it would be comforting if a mother who had personal experience in this major world event is saying, ‘Yes, it was a big deal, but we learned a lot from it,” says Wan.

In September 2020, when Maureen Bourke saw an article about the Healthy Hindsight project in The StarPhoenix, she knew she had to get involved. As coordinator of USask’s SCI-FI science camps, Bourke was able to tap into funding from Actua (a Canadian charitable organization that provides science, engineering and technology education for young people) and NSERC, to print and distribute hard copies of the first three issues, and -- working with a small crew of undergrad students from a variety of disciplines -- produce a fourth edition, this one focused on vaccine hesitancy.

While regular science camps were paused this summer because of the pandemic, through her connections, Bourke was able to put the COVID comics into the hands of children through Food Banks Saskatchewan and Dream Brokers (a charity supporting kids in Saskatchewan inner city schools to participate in sports and cultural programs). Working with the Saskatchewan Health Authority, Bourke and her team also provided comics to families who were self isolating due a positive COVID test. “I honestly think that of all the stuff I’ve worked on in my career, this could potentially be the most important thing I’ve ever done,” says Bourke.

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