As far back as he can remember, Khoa Tran has loved both science and comics. The science half is why he’s currently a post-doctoral research fellow in the Berger Lab at Penn. But the passion for comics is still there, too—evidenced by the Calvin and Hobbes books he keeps on his lab bench and, even more so, by his ever-growing passion project.
As a co-founder of JKX Comics, Tran works with two other scientists to make science (and STEM disciplines in general) more accessible by translating abstruse concepts into approachable comics.
“As a scientist, it’s an obligation to talk about your science to the general public, but it can be challenging because these are very complex topics,” Tran says. “I think comics allow us to actually de-convolute all that stuff and make it simpler for people to understand.”
Tran, Jaye Gardiner and Kelly Montgomery first joined forces in 2015 after meeting as Ph.D. students in the same fellowship program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Five years later, they’ve produced a growing collection of comics on subjects ranging from the link between HIV and cancer to the legacy of Henrietta Lacks. All are offered up free of charge on the JKX website and social media channels.
“When you see a comic, whether you’re a kid or adult, it sparks some type of joy,” Tran says. And on top of that gut appeal, “illustration can help with something that’s very difficult to explain only in words, and vice versa.” The format also presses academics to make their areas of expertise accessible and entertaining.
But even as a lover of comics, Tran—who has no formal art training—realized early on that he had a lot to learn about making his own. He says JKX’s first comic, EBV and the Replication Dance, took the team about a year to produce together. They met every Saturday at a local bar, spending upwards of four hours at a stretch working on it. “Everything was new to us—using illustrator, how to write a compelling story,” he remembers. “It’s kind of crazy how much we’ve grown in these past five years and how far we’ve seen JKX Comics grow.”
A few years ago, the trio launched a project that Tran hopes to eventually replicate at Penn. The “Gaining STEAM!” series matched local artists (including the JKX team) with scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Together, the teams developed comics to showcase the breadth of research underway at their university. Tran says JKX is now in the process of making a printed anthology version of “Gaining STEAM!,” which includes comics on the effects of psychotherapy with transgender clients; how bacteria can affect DNA folding; and what’s going on inside stars.
For “Gaining STEAM!,” Tran worked on The E. Coli Chronicles. Here’s an excerpt:
He says JKX is also focused on representation in science and highlighting diversity among scientists. Each year for Black, women’s and Latinx heritage months, the JKX team produces portraits of scientists from those backgrounds and highlights some of their work. “We want to remind people that we don’t all look like Einstein—white men with wild hair,” Tran says.
Here’s his latest, posted on Sept. 29 for Latinx Heritage Month:
More of Tran’s science comics are available on his personal website.
—Molly Petrilla C’06