The Truth is in the Toons

Garfield Kwan
Garfield Kwan ’13, MS ’16 uses comics to educate the public about ocean science.

As a kid, Garfield Kwan ’13, MS ’16, often tagged along with his mother on trips to fish markets in his native Hong Kong. “I just wanted to see the fish,” he says, “the crab, the octopus.” Today, he’s still fascinated with sea life—as a PhD student at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO), Kwan studies marine biology, and he’s sharing his expertise through an unexpected outlet: comics.

Despite his early enchantment with creatures of the sea, Kwan didn’t plan for the course he took. “I didn’t know I could be a marine biologist until my first year at UCSD,” says Kwan. “I wanted to find a job where I could learn something new, and I ended up in a marine biology lab on campus.” As an undergraduate student, he persuaded SIO to create the marine biology major program in 2013. The field piqued his interest, to say the least, and in 2019 he will be a “trifecta” alumnus, earning three degrees from UC San Diego through SIO.

Chief Scientific Illustrator Dana Song and Squidtoons Director Garfield Kwan share the latest collection of comics in Squidtoons: Exploring Ocean Science with Comics.

Kwan’s PhD studies have allowed him to dive into the world of underwater creatures like white seabass, green shore crabs, glass worms, and giant clams. In 2014, he created “Squidtoons” with a few friends, a website that explains science through whimsical cartoons. Its contents were recently published as a collection in Squidtoons: Exploring Ocean Science with Comics. Vibrant diagrams and wacky infographics on everything from the narwhal (originally meant “the corpse whale”) to the weedy seadragon (“the most adorable dragon ever”) fill the pages, taking the pieces from screen to paper. In addition, the Squidtoons website covers research outside of marine biology, delving into the science of topics like heat waves, infectious diseases, and science in films.

Kwan and his team follow the same process as a scientific paper to take on projects. Each Squidtoons comic is researched extensively and reviewed by scientists doing work in relevant fields. The comics go through drafts and revisions until they are accurate and ready to publish, complete with zany jokes and entertaining visuals (and of course, research citations).

Kwan’s vision is to help shape scientific communication—how researchers’ findings are shared with and consumed by the world. “I believe not all scientists need to communicate their science,” he says, “as long as someone else is adequately and accurately communicating it for them.” Kwan is filling this niche by taking complex research from dense scientific papers and offering it to the public in a way that is easier to digest, and certainly a lot more amusing. “Science is a luxury,” he says. “People are more likely to support research when they’re given something that unpacks the complexity behind the science.”

Check out the fun of Squidtoons here!