Neuroscience through the ages makes neurohistory fun for everyone

Dr. Cajal's Nobel Prize, by artist Armin Mortazavi.

Pictured: an illustration from the comic on Santiago Ramón y Cajal by artist and science cartoonist Armin Mortazavi. For more of Mortazavi's work, visit the Neuroscience Through the Ages interactive timeline, or check out his website.

A group of neuroscience graduate students at the University of British Columbia have found a novel way to detail the history of brain research. By merging art and science in comic form, they’re making complicated ideas in neuroscience accessible to everyone; by making it fun, they’re hoping to entice a younger generation into the sciences.

“A lot of art and science collaboration tends to look at an older demographic,” explains Samantha Baglot, one of the organizers of the project and recent graduate of the neuroscience master’s program. “We wanted to reach a younger audience, but we also wanted to challenge ourselves to communicate about research in a different, non-academic way.”

For the past year, students in the Graduate Program in Neuroscience have been working with illustrators and web developers to assemble a timeline of neuroscience history, with highlights presented as comics. So far, they’ve told stories about Charles Darwin, Santiago Ramón y Cajal, Alois Alzheimer and more, with the intention of developing the timeline from the origins of the field to the present. Each cartoon is a collaborative effort, as the students prepare the information for the artist, who then consults through the creative process to ensure the accuracy of each panel.

“It’s really the students driving this initiative,” says Baglot. The project was funded last year through the Graduate Student Initiative, a fund that enables graduate students affiliated with UBC’s Faculty of Medicine to pursue projects outside the scope of their regular research and academic activities.

The project originated with the Neuroscience Graduate Student Association led by Naila Kuhlmann (former graduate student in Dr. Matt Farrer’s lab, who graduated in 2017) and Jordan Shimell (current graduate student in Dr. Shernaz Bamji’s lab). Since then, a team led by Baglot, who recently graduated with her Master’s degree in neuroscience under the co-supervision of Dr. Liisa Galea and Dr. Joanne Weinberg, has been building an archive of stories and directing the next phase of neurohistory cartoons.

As the project moves into its second year, it has received high praise from the Canadian neuroscience community, including special recognition via an award for outreach and advocacy from the Canadian Association for Neuroscience.  

“We’d love to see this project grow to involve more people at more campuses across Canada,” says Baglot, who will expand the project as she begins a PhD at the University of Calgary. However, much of the work will also remain with the UBC team.

“What would make us proudest would be if this material was taken up by educators as a resource for neuroscience instruction," says Baglot. "We think there’s value in making the history of neuroscience fun, and we hope that our colourful approach will generate interest in the field for a lot of future neuroscientists.”

For more information on the Neuroscience Through the Ages interactive timeline, visit www.historyofneuroscience.com, or follow @neurohistoons on Twitter.