• Sep 14 2021

CCTS Debuts Comic Book on E-cigarette Use by Young Adults


What’s the best way to fight science misinformation? In the case of electronic cigarette use by young adults, a team at the University of Kentucky Center for Clinical and Translational Science (CCTS) chose a novel approach — a research-based comic book. 

“Obviously in the world that we live in right now, there is a lot of science misinformation, and a lot of that is just a communication flaw. The science is correct. The ideas are correct. The intent is correct. The messaging is not,” said Joel Thompson, Ph.D., research development director for the CCTS.

In early 2019 Thompson watched a webinar that discussed taking an environmental science paper and translating it into a graphic novel. In August 2019, the CCTS launched its first-ever Science Communication Challenge, inviting investigators to develop and pitch a comic book concept to tell the story of their research. The contest was open to any UK student, trainee or faculty member with a publication in the last three years in any clinical or translational field.

“When I saw the CCTS Communication Challenge come out, I thought, I really don't know if this is a good fit for me, but hey, why not?” said Melinda Ickes, Ph.D. She is an associate professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Promotion in the College of Education, as well as faculty associate and co-director of the Tobacco Policy Research Program of the College of Nursing BREATHE (Bridging Research Efforts and Advocacy Toward Healthy Environments) project. 

The research study she chose to pitch, titled “Prevalence and reasons for Juul use among college students,” was published in the American Journal of College Health in March 2019. “We really wanted to understand why students were using and what were the risk factors to initiate use and continue use of e-cigarettes.” She hoped to address rampant misinformation among young people about e-cigarette use.

In January 2020, Ickes was selected as the first place winner of the challenge.

Ashley Hall, research project manager in community engagement and participant recruitment at the CCTS, lauds her colleague Bryan Sanders, the main artist on the project. Hall said, “I knew if anyone could take this scientific jargon, distill it down and turn it into something that was easier to understand, it was certainly him.” 

Sanders, who does a variety of graphic design projects for the CCTS Participant Recruitment Services unit, is a comic artist and filmmaker on the side. In the past eight years, he’s created 20 comic books, with a total run of 5,000 copies. A frequent participant in the Lexington Comic & Toy Con, Sanders said this project was exactly the kind of challenge he likes. 

The CCTS team describes the process of developing this comic book as more intense than they anticipated. “We started out with some sketches and a very brief storyboard, and it seemed like a couple more meetings and we would have it ready to go. We probably had 25 meetings, probably 30 or 40 rewrites on the script. I don't know how many times Bryan went in and edited imagery for us,” said Thompson.

With vaping law changes during the production process, and the COVID-19 pandemic wrecking plans for the book’s debut at the 2020 Lexington Comic & Toy Com and CCTS Spring Conference, the team says they’re thrilled to finally get the comic book into people’s hands. 

“It’s important that CCTS supports innovative projects like this one, because these projects speak to what it means to translate research. If we understand something better, we feel more motivated to take action,” Hall said.

Sanders said, “If one person reads this book, puts down the comic and then puts down their e-cigarette, that’s a plus one in my book.”

Ickes says she hopes the comic will promote non-judgmental discussion of e-cigarette use across all ages, and she wants to develop curriculum and programming around the comic book. “Developing this comic really helped me see how we can talk about research in a different way, how we can engage young people. If we keep pushing the envelope, as the CCTS is helping us do, we're going to reach more people across Kentucky and even beyond.”

Sanders will be at the Lexington Comic & Toy Con, Sept. 9-12, in booth 1038 with copies of the CCTS “Adventures in Research” comic book. For more information, visit www.ccts.uky.edu/ccts-adventures-research-comic-book.