Using cartoons to teach science

Dr. Valentina Hoyos, assistant professor at the Center for Cell and Gene Therapy and the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at Baylor, didn’t consider herself skilled at drawing. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, she has found drawing to be the perfect creative outlet and a good way to educate others about science.

Dr. Valentina Hoyos

Valentina Hoyos

“At the beginning of the pandemic, I was spending a lot of time watching the news and getting anxious about everything that was happening,” Hoyos said. “I live far away from my family, and the idea that I couldn’t go see them if anything happened was very stressful. I needed to channel my energy somewhere else, so I started using SkillShare and YouTube to learn new productive skills.”

She picked up several new hobbies including worm composting and gardening. With no backyard, she improvised and created an indoor garden tower, using LED lights and soil from her composting to grow vegetables inside her house. Then she tried drawing, starting with just a few doodles on her iPad.

“My mom has always been a talented artist, painting and drawing, but I never really tried it. I didn’t think I had it in me,” she said.

Hoyos soon found she too had a talent for drawing and could use it to help pursue her other passion—education. She teamed up with her sister, an environmental specialist, to start a website called Butterfly Moves. The site explains things anyone can do to combat global climate change. Her sister provided the tips for people to reduce their carbon footprints, and Hoyos drew the cartoon butterfly mascot to illustrate the tips in a fun way. Finding inspiration in the cartoons, she started illustrating her own work in cancer and immunotherapy.

“I have always liked using cartoons to explain cancer and cancer treatments to patients, but I never thought I could draw them myself,” Hoyos said. “I would just find cartoons online. I never had time to learn and draw myself.”

With her spare time found during the pandemic, she drew cartoons of cancer cells and CAR T cells to explain her own research. When she started hearing questions about COVID-19 vaccines, she decided cartoons could help explain that complicated topic too. She started a YouTube channel called Immune Cartoons and uploaded her first two videos explaining how COVID-19 vaccines work, one in English and one in Spanish. The videos feature her cartoon viruses, immune cells and antibodies, along with her narration detailing how the different vaccines protect the body against COVID-19. Her videos are being shared all over the world, and her Spanish video gained nearly 15,000 views in the first two weeks.

Now, Hoyos is working on her cancer cartoons after work and on the weekends. She plans to continue using her art to explain different breast cancer subtypes, treatments and side effects to patients in an easy-to-understand way. Hoyos said she is grateful for the extra time the pandemic has afforded her to discover a new passion.

“The silver lining about this time is that people have been able to find a side of themselves that they might not have found before because they have more time to self-reflect and try new things,” Hoyos said. “What I’ve found is you don’t know what you have to offer until you take the time to explore and learn new things.”

-By Molly Chiu