“Live scribing” captures shared experience of 2012 talks

Graphical notes created by Perrin Ireland for Linda Kah’s talk, “From Mauritania to Mars: Earth scientists invade the red planet” at ScienceWriters2012. Photo: Duke University

Live drawing by Perrin Ireland, who attended ScienceWriters2012 as a CASW traveling fellow, added a novel dimension to both the New Horizons and NASW sessions. We asked Perrin to tell us more about “live scribing” as a way of interpreting and communicating science.

My name is Perrin Ireland. I’m a science scribe, a science doodler, a visual science storyteller.

Live scribing, or graphically capturing, a scientific presentation is permission to perform how I’ve learned my entire life: by doodling. With no prior knowledge of the talk, I set up my boards, get out my markers, listen and draw what I hear and see.

Artists's graphic notes
Graphical notes created by Perrin Ireland for Greg Wray’s talk, “Finding evolution’s footprints in the regulome.” Photo: Duke University

People often ask me how I keep track of everything that’s going on during a talk, and it’s something I like to cover in my workshops. It’s a skill that one only learns through practice. I’ve developed three or four holding tanks in my mind, and different elements of the scribing process temporarily land in each of them. I’m listening to what’s being said, and I’m deciding what visual metaphors I’ll use to describe it. I’m also in the process of catching up on what was just said while I finish the corresponding image. I check my watch to estimate how much time is left in the talk and thus how much space I should leave for the remainder. I’m thinking about the structure and flow of the visual, and I’m planning which elements I’ll punch up with some color when the talk is finished, before people come up to talk to me and take my picture with the piece.

Graphical notes created by Perrin Ireland for David Rothschild’s talk, “Predicting and understanding the 2012 election with the social web.” Photo: Duke University
Graphical notes created by Perrin Ireland for Steve Wing’s talk, “Poverty, health and industrial hog production.” Photo: Duke University

I learn by drawing, and most of the world learns by seeing. It is no surprise to me that the visuals I produce are wildly popular at an event like SciWri12—scientists, science writers and consumers of science alike feel an intuitive pull to the drawings because the drawings tell their story. What’s most important about the drawing is that it convey a shared experience. Audience members often come up to me and say, “That was exactly what I saw in my head!” or, “I love that you captured this joke that she made.” When I scribe, it’s not just that I listen to the speaker—I think some part of me listens to the experience of the entire room and channels that opportunity to represent a collective experience.

Graphical notes created by Perrin Ireland for Mark Kruse’s talk: “What’s the universe made of? Higgsmania.” Photo: Duke University
Graphical notes created by Perrin Ireland for Miguel Nicolelis’s talk, “Melding mind and machine: robot limbs controlled by thought.” Photo: Duke University

A palpable sense of relief comes from scientists and science communicators when I capture a complicated talk. And there’s a growing impulse that can be seen in renewed public interest in science cafes, science radio shows, and science television shows: science no longer wants to be the inaccessible princess in the castle tower. She wants to tell her story like the human that she is. Scribing captures complex scientific ideas as part of the human experience that drives them. Acting as a channel for this process is indeed a privilege.

An artist with a degree in biology from Brown University, Perrin Ireland serves as senior science communications specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council San Francisco office. Her animated science stories have appeared on the Scientific American blog network, the Scripps Oceanographic Institution’s Explorations webpage, and at the Dublin and New York Imagine Science Film Festivals. Perrin also facilitates workshops to educate participants about visual ways to capture scientific content and convey complex scientific concepts.