Drawing conclusions

Jess Wade tells us the story of how she came into science, and what led her to share her science through her other passion: art

  • Jess Wade's infographic doodle from the event: The science of stress

    Credit: Jess Wade

After a couple of events this autumn, we noticed Ri Member Jess Wade posting fantastic doodles on twitter. They are intricate, detailed and wonderful. So we asked her about them.

Doodling at the Ri

By Jess Wade, PhD

Over the past few months, my membership to the Royal Institution has become one of the most valuable cards in my wallet. I can get through the most boring meetings when I know I will be spending the evening being enchanted in the Ri's lecture theatre. I come out buzzing: excited, loaded with facts and inspired to talk about it to everyone I know.

It is a common misconception amongst researchers that the world is desperate to hear about what we do, with just about every other PhD student documenting their journey through ‘popular’ science blogs. I would spend hours writing up every adventure, citing every quotation fastidiously and uploading them into cyberspace. The only regular commenter was my mother, who I was speaking to every day already. As my workload increased and ‘real’ academic writing started to take up my time, I picked up my (Apple) Pencil.

I have always liked my notes to be colourful (and crucially colour coded, with a 0.38 mm ball point from A-Levels to PhD) and I’d pick craft over clothes any day. Before starting my undergrad and PhD at Imperial, I spent a very enjoyable year in art school. If I could study anything today, I’d choose Imperial/ Royal College of Art’s Design Engineering. My revision books still live in the physics cupboard at my parent’s house: equation-filled scrapbooks with benzene rings shaped like bagels and roundabouts describing circular motion. I can remember the way my physics teacher wrote “thro’ “rather than “through” and my absolute disbelief when my chemistry teacher first scribbled “curly arrows”. I am definitely a ‘visual learner’. 

  • One of Jess's infographic doodle notes from the Jim Al-Khalili event, Astrobiology: The truth is out there

    Credit: Jess Wade

  • One of Jess's infographic doodles from the event with Vincent Walsh, The science of stress

    Credit: Jess Wade

  • One of Jess's doodles, from Sean Carroll's The big picture event.

    Credit: Jess Wade

  • One of Jess's doodles from Marcus Du Sautoy's event What we cannot know.

    Credit: Jess Wade

The complexity and richness of the Royal Institution evening talks can never really leave the magic of Albemale Street, but I have made a career based on my skills in nanoanalysis and doodling is just a new way of doing it. I love infographics and data visualisation, clarifying the complicated through icons and graphs.

There was a time when I believed there was a clipart for everything. But it turns out that there is no Emoji for what a 27-km wide particle accelerator looks like, diphoton decay or the curvature of space-time near a black hole.

I have become obsessed with illustrating my notes- from chemical structures to neural networks and bodily organs. My iPad has become a digital scrapbook, and with every talk I attend I am getting fancier embellishments. I can draw a neuron, hazard symbols and (almost) a strand of DNA without cheating.

It has become an easier way to explain to others where I have been, what I found most important and how it links to other concepts. Sometimes I have to Google the labels of biological diagrams and search for the logos of national labs, but writing notes during a lecture helps me process all the information I receive. If I can help share the wonder beyond the walls of the RI, to an audience who may not want to read 1,000 words of prose, I am happy to do it

Jess Wade is a researcher at Imperial College in the Department of Physics. She's on twitter @jesswade and on her blog, Making Physics Fun

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