SciArt Spotlight: JoAnna Wendel
If you love science, art, and learning about space—including how NASA keeps tabs on those sneaky near-Earth asteroids—you'll love our SciArt Spotlight interview with JoAnna Wendel. JoAnna is an absolute paradigm of #SciComm. She's a science writer, cartoonist, and NASA's lead communications specialist for the Planetary Sciences Division. Now that is some serious celestial STEAM clout. Not only can JoAnna tell you what's up with the solar system; she can draw about it, too.
We love JoAnna's science comics for their cleverness, creativity, and JoAnna's unique fusion of information and art. Her illustrations will make you smile, and you're guaranteed to learn a thing or two. JoAnna's comics cover a variety of awesome and nerdy topics like cool Earth science facts, adorable animal illustrations, and so much more.
In fact, JoAnna's Scientist Princesses series, wherein Disney princesses brilliantly become earth scientists, has been covered by outlets including Gizmodo, Independent.ie, and GlacierHub. JoAnna's imagination and knowledge clearly know no limits, and we will keep our eyes on her portfolio to find out what science comic she will create next!
We were delighted to have the opportunity to discuss SciArt and SciComm with JoAnna Wendel. Read on to learn about JoAnna's favorite celestial object, her advice to aspiring artists, her thoughts on the #dearMoon initiative, what NASA missions we should keep an eye on, and much, much more!
When did you know you were an artist?
Gosh, I was always an artist even if I didn't identify that way. I was always doodling on everything, always wanting to create things. In elementary school and middle school I was "The kid who could draw," and I'd draw little comics all the time to entertain my brother. It wasn't until I went to an art-focused high school did I start actually identifying as an artist.
Do you remember what your first science comic was?
It was about my friend Kara who studies tiny worms on the ocean floor called polychaete worms: https://medium.com/@JoAnnaScience/kara-s-worms-cb1d9de2e879
When did you fall in love with space—and planets in particular?
My first real science writing job out of college was reporting for Eos, the magazine of the American Geophysical Union. Eos covers all Earth and near-Earth space science, basically everything in our solar system. I covered lots of different topics, from glaciers to earthquakes, to climate change, but I always had the most fun writing about space and planets. Just the thought of oceans under the ice of a tiny moon a billion miles away, or the surface of Mars possibly holding evidence of life beyond Earth, really captured my imagination. It's also a bit of an escape from the "real world," I'd say. When things get scary at home, I can think of the potential amazing discoveries we could make in the future.
What is your favorite planet and why?
Well, I'd say my favorite body in the solar system isn't actually a planet. It's a moon called Titan that orbits Saturn. Titan has a lot of similarities to Earth--it's the only other object in the solar system where it rains! Except on Titan, it rains methane, not water. There are also rivers and lakes of liquid methane. We have no idea what's in those lakes, but hopefully someday we'll send a spacecraft to find out.
What’s your favorite part of being the lead communications specialist for the Planetary Sciences Division at NASA?
I wear a couple different hats. Day-to-day, my main responsibility is making sure NASA's planetary message is consistent. I edit press releases coming from other NASA centers like the Jet Propulsion Laboratory or the Ames Research Center in California, or the Goddard Spaceflight Center in Maryland. I coordinate interviews between scientists and journalists and also act as a resource to journalists who are covering planetary science.
My other hat is more long-term. I'm responsible for leading the way that NASA planetary stories are told to the public. For instance, right now I'm developing a strategy to publicize NASA's Planetary Defense Coordination Office--those are the folks who look for asteroids that could possibly threaten Earth with an impact. There are observatories all over the world finding and tracking these near-Earth asteroids, and scientists who calculate their orbits to make sure they're not going to come near our planet. But not many people know that NASA leads this effort! It's my job to figure out a way, through press releases, articles, videos, graphics, and other storytelling techniques, to share with the public that this kind of research is happening.
Of course, I also have to do that for all the bodies in the solar system--planets, dwarf planets, moons, asteroids, comets, and all the missions that visit those bodies. It's a lot of work, but it means that my days are spent thinking and talking about space!
What current or upcoming NASA missions are you most excited about?
Current missions--the New Horizons mission to the Kuiper Belt Object nicknamed Ultima Thule. We've never sent a spacecraft to study an object so far away from Earth--it's about 4 BILLION kilometers away! At that distance, it takes data about 4-5 hours to come back to Earth (unlike from Mars, where it takes only about 20 minutes). This is an entirely new type of world we're exploring that's never been done before.
Upcoming--In several years, NASA will launch the Europa Clipper spacecraft, which will study Jupiter's small ice-covered moon, Europa. Europa is one of those worlds that has an internal ocean underneath a thick layer of ice. We know that life needs water to survive, so Europa and ocean worlds like it offer one of our best chances of finding life in the solar system. Europa Clipper will study Europa from above, which will prepare scientists for a possible lander mission in the future.
What are your thoughts on SpaceX commercial passenger Yusaku Maezawa’s #dearMoon project and his plans to invite artists along on the BFR’s inaugural commercial flight around the Moon?
I LOVE THIS. It warms my heart that artists will be among the first non-scientist humans to see the moon up close. I think artists bring such an important and unique perspective to the world, they're some of the few people who think outside the box and make connections we'd never even dream of. I can't wait to see what these artists produce, what perspectives they gain from not only seeing the Moon up close but also from seeing the Earth as a whole planet.
Your Scientist Princesses series is wonderfully amazing. What was the inspiration?
I kept seeing "Disney Princesses as X" all over the internet and I thought that scientists were missing! And once I started thinking about it everything fell into place pretty quickly--all the princesses have their adventures in places where science is done already, like the ocean, or the forest, or in libraries thinking about complicated problems. It was a natural fit, and I'm glad people enjoyed them!
How do you define your comic style?
My biggest style inspiration was probably Bill Amend's Foxtrot comic strip, and my "training" so to speak was in reading newspaper comics in general. I like the bold black lines and flat colors. My style is definitely more cartoony and less realistic. And I love injecting humor wherever I can!
What do you think it is about comics that makes them a great outlet to explore science-related topics?
Science is very visual and -- let's be honest -- really boring sometimes. Comics can tell a sequential story and have fun with it! While also showing, rather than telling, how molecules bond or how planets form. I wish I could animate, but that's a pursuit for less busy times.
What does being a science communicator and a SciArt creator mean to you?
I always knew I wanted a job where I'd never stop learning. I knew I didn't want to actually BE a scientist, but I loved to learn about science and to share that love with everyone around me (Whether they wanted to hear it or not). I feel powerful about my knowledge and my ability to talk about it in a way that non-scientist folks can actually understand! And I love that my job requires enthusiasm, learning, and interacting with people all the time. The science world is so far removed from the non-science world, and I'm happy that I can be a small bridge between the worlds.
What advice do you have for young artists who are also interested in creating science-related art?
This advice also applies to any comics creator--it's not about your drawing talent, it's about the story you're trying to tell and the writing you use to tell it. Look at the comic XKCD--it's just stick figures! There's a reason it's so popular. It's because of the writing. More than being knowledgeable about science, you must be an excellent communicator and writer. So practice, practice, practice. Read lots of science writing and share what you learned with others! Take communications classes and do your art all the time.
Do you have any ideas for future zines or comic series?
My friend and I have a dream of writing a children's book about anthropomorphized plants because we're sad that people don't get as excited about plants as other types of science. I also would love to find the time to make more Disney Princess scientists. I'm also working my cartooning into my job at NASA.
Do you have any favorite STEM characters in books/movies/other art forms?
The first one that jumps to mind is Hermione Granger from Harry Potter! She's got a scientist brain for sure. She works hard, she thinks outside the box, and she's always coming up with creative solutions to solve everyday problems.
Shuri in the Black Panther is AMAZING. She's so confident and smart and doesn't let men overshadow her. I hope she gets her own movie.
If you were a superhero, what would your go-to wearable tech device be?
I'd want some kind of suit that could reflect light to turn me "invisible", so I could sneak into the bad guys' lair and kick some butt.