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Researchers Make Science Fun at Phoenix Comicon

Comicons are known for elaborately costumed guests, celebrity photo ops, specialty vendors and gaming fun.

Arizona State University

Comicon attendeesComicon attendees were all ears during the Jurassic Park panel at Phoenix Comicon. ASU researchers were instrumental in the convention’s science programming.Photo credit: Allen Holder; courtesy of Phoenix ComiconIt turns out they are also a great forum for getting research data into the community and generating scientific dialogue.

In recent years, Phoenix Comicon – one of the biggest pop culture events in the Southwest – has expanded its offerings by including an array of science programming, which is proving quite popular.

Arizona State University researchers featured heavily in the programming at the latest Phoenix Comicon, held May 28-31.

Sitting on panels that invited public engagement, they tackled a wide range of topics, such as “How to Become a Mad Scientist” and “Everybody Panic! Or Don’t…The Science of Epidemics.”

The man behind the panels is School of Earth and Space Exploration senior instructional designer Lev Horodyskyj, who has been organizing the science programming track at Phoenix Comicon for the last two years.

Horodyskyj aims for a good mix of pop-culture panels and more esoteric ones, but all use science as their springboard.

“I have a group of volunteers who assist me, and we distill the topics into the panel sequence, usually more strongly mixed towards pop culture,” he explained. “My preference for panel composition is diverse faces and diverse fields. For example, I mixed entomologists and physicists for the ‘Science of Ant Man’ panel. I find that this kind of organization benefits the panelists in forming connections that could help them professionally and also benefits the audience in seeing a diversity of science on one panel.”

Relating panels to pop-culture topics also makes the science digestible for a large, mixed audience while giving researchers a chance to hone their talent for effectively relaying scientific information to the masses.

Anne Stone, an anthropological geneticist in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, discussed ancient DNA – including its longevity, extraction techniques and what samples work best – as part of the “Jurassic World” panel.

“It was a really fun experience, and we got great questions from the crowd,” said Stone, who estimated her audience at around 230 people.

Sitting on the same panel was School of Life Sciences postdoctoral research associate Marc Tollis. The evolutionary biologist who specializes in reptiles and amphibians addressed the genomics of dinosaurs, starting with where the genomics field was in 1990, when “Jurassic Park” was published, and talking through how dinosaur genomes could be reconstructed based on what is known about bird and crocodile genomes today.

Tollis said, “Like the audience members, I am a fan, so I tried to respect the source material and not make the session into a ‘what’s wrong with Jurassic Park’ lecture. I wanted to show an audience that being a scientist doesn’t have to make you a cynical naysayer whose job it is to poke holes in a story or argument.”

The cycle will continue next January, when Horodyskyj plans to send out his yearly email to interested researchers asking for topic suggestions for Phoenix Comicon 2016. Then, he and his team will go to work building out panels, and the fun – and exchange of information – will begin again.