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How comics helped one woman translate her chemistry thesis for the masses

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Veronica Berns digs science. She gets it. She speaks its language.

But not everyone is like that. There are people who don't know how to talk about quasicrystals in casual conversation. People like … oh I don't know, the person writing this blog post, for instance. Just one example!

As Berns was putting together her doctoral thesis in chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison last year, she found that she had a hard time sharing her world with people who weren't exactly like her.

How could her family members and friends understand her work and what it meant if they weren't in the lab, too?

"I was just beginning to write my academic thesis and I became very frustrated with myself when trying to explain the work to non-scientist friends of mine," Berns, now 28, said in an e-mail to The Post. "Yes, it is complicated material, but following the underlying concepts is actually quite manageable if you're motivated to do it."

[Teachers, after a banner year for graphic novels, don’t ban these books]

So Veronica Berns did what any good scientist does when trying to communicate with … well, people who aren't.

She gave them visual aides.

Berns compiled a comic book along with her thesis. There were pictures! And there were also simple(r) explanations, designed to open up her research to a broader audience.

"I kept a really rough look to the comic itself because I want it to feel like a stand in for having a conversation with me," Berns wrote in her e-mail Tuesday. "Like the reader and I were hanging out and talking about science and I just grabbed a pen and paper and started doodling to clarify the point I was making. The words are all in my handwriting too."

According to an Associated Press report:

Berns surprised her family with her comic book "Atomic Size Matters" at her graduation last year. The book depicts cartoons of Berns wearing various costumes and uses humor as well as simple comparisons to describe elaborate chemistry.
"We're just really proud that she can take something so complex and put it into a fun visual explanation that everyone can enjoy," Jody Berns said.

Jody Berns is Veronica Berns's mom, by the way. But that's probably a thing you figured out already, because that extremely charming quote starts with "we're just really proud ...," which is what every mom would say if their kid gave them a science comic book after getting a PhD. I mean how could you not.

The comic book will apparently have a wider reach than she originally thought. Berns set up a Kickstarter campaign, which has brought in more than $14,000 to fund the publication of more books. (You can buy "Atomic Size Matters" here.)

In order to help her family understand her chemistry thesis, University of Wisconsin-Madison PhD student Veronica Berns transformed her dissertation into a comic book. (Video: AP)

"So far no one has read the comic because it is still being printed, but people have told me how excited they are to share it with their parent who is an engineer or their kid who's really curious about chemistry," Berns said in her e-mail. "I hope the book brings people together — especially if they were already in the same room, and now they're having a conversation about science together. "

And about those quasicrystals that Berns studied ... a university news release explains:

Quasicrystals show every indication of having an ordered and organized arrangement of atoms — sometimes including large crystal facets — except that they exhibit rotational symmetries that have long been considered incompatible with such crystalline organization.
Quasicrystals are so strange that their discoverer, Dan Shechtman, remarked, “There can be no such creature.”
“Quasicrystals are interesting because they break the rules of what we think crystals are,” Berns says. “Studying that kind of thing is one way to learn something new about the world.”

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