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Friday
Jul112014

Into the Wild meets: Beatrice the Biologist

Katie McKissick is the mind behind  ‘Beatrice the Biologist’, a blog that breaks down difficult to digest information and presents it using comics, articles and comedy. Her unique approach to biology education has brought her over 160,000 Facebook followers and three published books since the blog’s creation. Into the Wild got an exclusive interview with Katie to learn more about her life, career and why she’s dedicated it all to the pursuit of science education.

Image courtesy of Beatrice the Biologist

Into the Wild: You started out your career as a high school biology teacher, and have since evolved to become a comic artist, science writer and public educator all rolled into one. Has it been a natural progression and which has been your favourite job and why?

When I was a high school biology teacher, I loved designing lesson plans and thinking about how my students learned. When I left the classroom, I decided I wanted to make content for teachers to use, and for two reasons: 1, because I really enjoyed creating content about science, and 2, because I know how hard it is to be a teacher, and I want to do everything I can to help the science teachers in the trenches today.

Between leaving teaching six years ago, and where I am now, yes, it has been a very natural progression. I started the blog and just let it evolve on its own. I started writing longer posts, and it eventually became more and more image-focused, to the point where I started doing standalone comics.

I’d say that what I love most is doing longer pieces that blend prose and comics that are responding to what I’m writing about. I have a lot of fun with it!

Education seems to be a recurrent theme throughout your career; do you feel it is important for people to know more about science? And if so, why?

I had several of my students tell me that they “hated science” before they had me as a teacher—that I helped them realize how interesting it is. I took a lot of pride in that. As we all know, there is a significant portion of people that find science intimidating, boring, or irrelevant, and I (obviously) very much disagree. I think it’s important to understand its basic principles and respect it in general, not just because it’s a wonderful human endeavour to understand the world and invent new technologies, but because our future depends on it.

Image courtesy of Beatrice the Biologist

In less than 5 years you have reached over 160k followers on Facebook, written three books (‘Amoeba Hugs and Other Nonsense’, ‘Little Cells’ & ‘What’s in Your Genes?’), created a widely fantastic biological merchandise collection, made two iPhone games, and so much more! Where does your drive to create come from? Have you always been creative – what’s your earliest creative memory?

Ultimately I’d say my drive comes from my prior high school students. Remembering their faces when they enjoyed a science lesson, or told me that something they learned was “so cool.” I want to share what I love about science with other people, too, so I’m always looking for new ways to do it.

I suppose I’m creative. I mean, I don’t walk around saying, “Rahaha, look at me, I’m so creative,” but I do really enjoy working on something and having a product at the end. I was always a big doodler growing up. I’d doodle on the margins of class notes, on the covers of my binders, and even on my hand. People who knew me in high school would check in to see what pen tattoo I had given myself during the course of the school day.

I’m not sure what my earliest creative memory would be, but I can tell you that my creative energies are tied to my family. My grandmother, mother, and all three of my siblings have amazing artistic talent. I’m just trying to keep up.

Did your blog project come first and if so what was the inspiration for it?

I started out writing about all the misconceptions I found that my students have, and I just figured I’d see where the blog led from there. I actually planned it out for a good six months, but then I realized I was getting trapped in the planning phases, and I just needed to start writing already!

Could you give us an insight into what’s next in store for Beatrice the Biologist?

What I’d really like to do next is create a bona fide biology textbook that classrooms could actually use that’s all done in my style. How cool would that be? Not sure how to go about doing it yet, though.

Your blog covers topics ranging from the (lack of) reasoning in the gay marriage bans, science fiction, cell biology, zoology and even a little bit of chemistry! So here’s a toughy, if you had to choose only ONE topic to talk about for the rest of your, what would you pick, and why?

Evolution! It’s so fun to make analogies for this grand and somewhat abstract idea about change over time and how adaptations build up and create new species. I just love it!

Image courtesy of Beatrice the Biologist

You not only have your own blog, but write for Scientific American in the ‘Symbiartic’ blog. The content and style is quite different to your independent blog, how do you find ideas for ‘Symbiartic’ articles?

Since my website has become mostly stand-alone comics, I’m using Symbiartic as a place to share my other thoughts, science artwork (that may or may not be a comic), and information about other people’s work. I really like that I have these two different spaces to express myself. 

Looking at your article on the ‘Ups and Downs of Producing Online Content’, other than copycats, what are the challenges you face as a science blogger?

Well, there are also negative comments here and there, which I really try to ignore, but as a highly sensitive person with a thin skin, sometimes that’s hard. Other than that, it’s just the challenge of trying to get my name out there and telling people what I do without feeling overbearing or braggy. You have to be a big self promoter, and that’s something I have a hard time with. Online and offline, I’m always concerned that I’m annoying people, and my default is to assume that most people don’t want to know what I’m thinking or doing, so I’ve never been a big social media sharer of things in my personal life. I try to set that aside when I share Beatrice the Biologist things, especially since people have to choose to follow me, which means they must want to know what I’m doing.

Having looked at the downside, what do you love most about your job?

I love creating science art and comics—the feeling of a job well done is a big high for me. And then when I see people share them, or get emails from teachers who use them in their classrooms to the delight of their students, I am walking on air!

Do you have any words of wisdom for budding science writers?

Start writing and see where it goes! Don’t get stuck in the planning stages. Start throwing spaghetti against the wall and see what sticks. (Figuratively, but you can literally do this if you don’t mind the cleanup after.)

Image courtesy of Sarah Reid

Looking back briefly to your teaching career, what was your most rewarding experience?

I had a student who usually stayed after class to ask me about Stephen Hawking and his work. Toward the end of the school year, I picked up a copy of A Brief History of Time for him at the bookstore. When I gave it to him, his eyes lit up, and I still remember it fondly.

Have you had any other memorable experiences that have influenced your work?

I used to make my little science jokes and impressions of cells, molecules, and atoms when I was explaining concepts. This one girl in one of my classes was a bit of a class clown herself and she couldn’t help but laugh loudly and hysterically at all my jokes. Remembering that gives me a little boost.

Our organisation caters for people who want to volunteer, travel and gather new experiences across the globe. If you could travel anywhere in the world to do anything, where would you go and what would you do?

I have never seen the northern lights, so I want to go somewhere way up north to see them. Alaska? Norway? I’m not sure yet, but I have to do it!

Going back to your blog, do you have any favourite Beatrice the Biologist comics/articles?

This was one of my first standalone comics, and I’m still really proud of it:

Image courtesy of Beatrice the Biologist

What do you think is the most important challenge conservation efforts should be focusing on right now?

Our oceans. We need to stop killing sharks, stop overfishing (maybe even just stop fishing entirely for a little while, but I realize that’s probably not going to happen), and stop killing marine mammals. Just stop killing these threatened and vulnerable species already, people!

Having followed your comics for quite a while, you do some excellent animals ones - do you have a favourite species?  Is it an unusual animal?

It changes day to day, but my usual favourite is the Giant Pacific Octopus because they’re so changeable and intelligent, but are still solitary. I like to imagine them as introverted creatures that hang out under rocks thinking deep thoughts.

If this has tickled your funny bone, why not follow Beatrice the Biologist and have a giggle:

 

Image courtesy of Beatrice the Biologist

 

Becky Salen

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