Making Zines for Science: Five Questions for Christine Liu

Christine Liu’s zines about the effects of nicotine and opium begin with botany—tobacco leaves and poppy blooms—and end in the brain. Invested in science communication, Liu hopes her zines offer an artistic entry point into neuroscience. She aims to attract new audiences to the scientific questions she raises in the pages, while encouraging readers to think about the connections between the environments around us and those within us.

In addition to researching neuroscience and making science zines, Liu co-founded Two Photon Art and is a part of the STEM Squad, an online inclusive community of researchers in science, technology, engineering, and math. We spoke during her visit to Madison, Wisconsin for the National Science Policy Network symposium in November 2019. Read our conversation below and explore two of her zines, Nicotine and The Opium Poppy.

1. Before we get into zines, I’m curious about your doctoral research. What do you study?

I’m in the sixth year of my Ph.D. in Neuroscience at University of California, Berkeley in Stephan Lammel’s lab. The lab is focused on characterizing the dopaminergic reward system in the context of many different kinds of behaviors. Everyone in the lab studies bits and pieces of this circuit in some aspect and then ties it to disorders or disease, in my case, nicotine use.

Christine Liu's headshot, a photograph of her against a background of painted flowers

Christine Liu. Image courtesy of Christine Liu.

I’m interested, in general, in understanding how drugs of abuse or recreational drugs act on the brain. I find it fascinating how a tiny molecule can affect behavior in such a profound manner while the drug is taking its effect on the brain. The work that I do in the lab is using different tools, at the systems circuit neuroscience level, to dissect exactly what cell populations are affected by a low, rewarding dose of nicotine or a higher, aversive dose of nicotine. Nicotine is an interesting drug, because at a slightly higher dose than what would be rewarding—about double the rewarding dose—it actually becomes aversive. This is unlike other drugs that act on the dopamine system, like heroin or cocaine, which typically feel better as you take more (until there are serious adverse effects).

Fundamentally, I’m interested in characterizing how this high, aversive dose of nicotine acts on the brain in a different way than the rewarding dose. Perhaps if we could figure this out, then we could come up with new targeted treatments for nicotine addiction.

2. How does making zines shape your research? It’s easy to see how your research is influencing the subject of your zines. But does it go the other way around?

In a tangential way, yes. Communicating science through zines has made me take a step back, and think more deeply about what I’m doing. How does my science serve society? What is the scope of the questions that I’m asking in research? It’s also made me able to do research for so long. I find it difficult, as many researchers do, to continually encounter failure in one research project day in and day out for several years. Having an artistic outlet that is also contributing to science, and one that doesn’t require any sort of gatekeeping or barriers to publication, has been nice. It helps me continue to feel productive and that I’m generating something of value.

It was actually my zines that brought me to the Society for Neuroscience conference for the first time, as part of their section for the Art of Neuroscience exhibits. My doctoral project wasn’t at a stage where I could share it publicly yet, but I went to the Society for Neuroscience conference for three years, back to back, before I presented a poster on my thesis work for the very first time just a couple of weeks ago.

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3. Let’s talk about the nicotine zine. It’s so closely related to your research. If I were trying to distill my research into a zine, the process of choosing what to put in and what to leave out would be tough. How did you go about it?

Actually, I had the opposite experience with the nicotine zine, where I started writing it from a mile away. I modeled it after the opium poppy zine, and I know much less about opioid receptors and how opiates act on the brain than I do nicotine receptors and how nicotine acts on the brain. So, I started out with plant biology, and then discussed the cultural relevance of the plants, and then the drug and its current and potential future effects on society.

I didn’t put that much of my own research into the zine to start with. Then I gave the zine to a few lab mates for feedback, and they suggested adding one more spread on the nicotine research. It was nice to hear other people say that they wanted to know more about the science I was doing related to the broader topic. This zine was also funded in part by the Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program. We received a grant for our research, and in the community engagement portion of the grant we included a budget to print and distribute these zines. Right now, we’re mailing free copies of the zine to science educators around the world.

4. You mentioned plant biology. Both the opium and nicotine zines begin with botany and end in the brain. Is the intersection between plants and neuroscience something that particularly interests you?

Yes, actually. I was a graduate student instructor for an amazing professor, Dr. David Presti, who teaches a class at Berkeley called Drugs and the Brain where he also takes this approach. We have to understand the role of these small molecules in the plants that they are derived from, because that’s why they exist on earth, because they evolved as defense mechanisms for these plants. Often, when we think about drugs, it’s very human-centric. Of course, it’s because drugs affect the human brain that a lot of research is funded on drugs, that we have many of these diseases, disorders, and addictions.

Often, when we think about drugs, it’s very human-centric.

But I think it helps to take a step back—a big, big step back—and think about these chemicals. They’re defense mechanisms for plants that we have hijacked and turned into products or medicine or both. We should examine our relationship as humans to this plant-derived molecule. This also encourages people to think of our existence and science a bit more broadly. To scientists, it is always very tempting to think of things within a framework of how things affect humans or how things affect the human brain. Even though I might be studying these questions in a mouse model!

This approach also resonates with people. At Zine Fests, for instance, there are a lot of people who resonate very strongly with plant biology, with nature, while chemistry and neuroscience are much more intimidating to them as concepts. So, reading the first few pages, they see flowers, plants, and leaves. They’re rooted in this more tangible aspect of the topic at hand.

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5. What are some of the challenges of science communication? You mentioned that you wrote a budget for zines into a grant, and also that it has served as an artistic outlet for you. Do you have suggestions for academia in terms of supporting science communication?

There’s a lot to discuss around that topic; there are whole conferences around just that topic. One challenge is evaluating the impact of this work. There’s this idea, this narrative, that my zines are reaching a population of people who might not traditionally be interested or have access to science, whether they’re a more artistic crowd or one that would typically not look up these topics on their own.

Inspired by the 2018 Inclusive SciComm symposium which focused on the importance of evaluation, I did a small pilot survey with Tera Johnson, the co-founder of Two Photon Art, at the San Francisco Zine Fest. We printed out a survey, to see who we were reaching and who we were serving. It turns out that it was mostly adults, with a college education with either an interest in STEM or an education in STEM. So, when we actually took the time and effort to evaluate whether or not we were effectively targeting the population that we are often celebrated for serving, it turns out that maybe we’re not doing such a great job.

We need scientific studies to evaluate our science communication efforts.

Moving forward, if we are to get more funding and more support for science communication efforts, we do need to demonstrate that our efforts are actually effective and that we are serving marginalized communities. It would be such a travesty to receive all this funding that’s intended to serve marginalized people and only really, again, serve the people who already have access, interests, and education. We need scientific studies to evaluate our science communication efforts.

But, in the meantime, whenever I have my soapbox, I encourage people to do science communication as a hobby. It’s done so much for my own communication skills and has helped me grow as a scientist. Even though there might be work to do in terms of making sure that my science communication efforts are worth outside funding, there’s no price label on the value that it’s given to me, personally, as an artist and as a scientist.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Featured image: A portion of the cover of Christine Liu’s zine Nicotine. Image courtesy of Christine Liu, 2019.

Christine Liu is a Ph.D. candidate in Neuroscience at University of California, Berkeley researching the relationship between nicotine and the brain’s dopamine system. By doing experiments that allow her to tease apart circuits in the brain by targeting different cell types and their connections, she hopes to contribute to our understanding of how addiction manifests in the brain. She also makes art to communicate science as the co-founder of the art collective Two Photon Art. Website. Twitter. Contact.

Laura Perry is Managing Editor of Edge Effects and a Ph.D. candidate in Literary Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her research interests include animal studies and the public humanities. She is also an organizer of the interdisciplinary research group Environmental Justice in Multispecies WorldsTwitterContact.