Jorge Cham Talk at SACNAS 2010 Conference

Jorge Cham

Join us for a discussion of the highs and lows of the graduate school experience. Comic book author Jorge Cham, Ph.D., will present his humorous perspective on academic life. The talk will occur at the Anaheim Marriott Hotel on Friday October 1, 2010 at the annual SACNAS conference in Anaheim, CA.



Jorge Cham, Ph.D.: The Scientist Behind Piled Higher and Deeper Comics

By Ivonne Vidal Pizarro, Ph.D.

Since completing his Ph.D. in 2003 in mechanical engineering from Stanford University, Dr. Jorge Cham has been visiting universities and colleges all over the country. He has not, as you might expect, been interviewing for postdoc fellowships or assistant professorships. Instead, he has been giving talks about procrastination as a formative aspect of the graduate lifestyle and autographing copies of his two books, Piled Higher and Deeper: A Graduate Student Comic Strip Collection and Life Is Tough and Then You Graduate: The Second Ph.D. Comic Strip Collection.

Cham, an instructor and a researcher at the California Institute of Technology, chronicles the struggles and humor of the lives of graduate students using, unsurprisingly, computer technology. Drawing directly in a graphics program using a computer graphics tablet, or digitizing pad, and stylus, he derives his themes from his experiences and those of his friends. Like many other events in his daily life, Cham’s participation at the 2005 SACNAS National Conference in Denver, Colorado, was inscribed in history in the comic strip, which is posted to his website (www.phdcomics.com) every couple of days.

During a break between speaking engagements this January, Cham shared insights on the life-changing intersection of his artistic and scientific pursuits.

IVP: What inspired you to begin expressing the trials of graduate school by way of a comic?

JC: I graduated at the top of my department as an undergrad, but when I got to Stanford, I found grad school to be a very sobering experience. Suddenly, I was pulling all-nighters more often than I ever had in college. I was barely passing my classes, and I was competing with all these really smart people for the attention of faculty who had their pick in terms of who they allowed to do research for them. Fortunately, the opportunity to vent all this stress and anxiety came along when the student newspaper put out an ad calling for comic strips. I knew I wasn’t alone in going through all these challenges and it seemed to me at the time that nobody had really captured the experience before.

IVP: How did you get started with comic arts and how does a comic strip with characters named Cecilia, Tajel and Mike Slackenerny relate to your engineering career?

JC: I’ve been reading comics almost all my life. My parents actually encouraged it. I am originally from Panama and Spanish is my first language; in a large way, I attribute learning English to comics. With that came a natural interest in drawing, and I’ve been doodling ever since, mostly in the corners of my class notebooks. When I started drawing Piled Higher and Deeper, I had never really thought to draw comics in a formal way. I had just recently read a Doonesbury retrospective and was inspired to just do it. You can tell from my early strips that my artwork has (hopefully) improved over the years; it’s amazing what practice will do.

Expressing myself through comics is the most natural way for me to communicate now. I find it hard to have a technical conversation without a whiteboard or notepad in front of me. Some argue that our brains actually work in the same way that comics do, with a combination of words and images and sequences of moments. I’ve used comics in my lecture notes to step students through certain difficult concepts, and the students seem to appreciate it. I also teach a class at Caltech on honing your cartooning skills to improve your creative process and your ability to convey and communicate new ideas. Lately, my research interests have also converged on this, and I’ve been looking at people’s doodling habits while doing engineering design.

IVP: When I look at your website and read about your book tour, I get the impression that you have been able to use your comic as a tool to connect with and inspire other students. What has been the response, in general, to your work?

JC: Most of the response I get from readers is that the comic strip has made them realize that they are not alone in what they are going through. In that sense, the comic seems to have brought together a community that didn’t appear to exist before. Readers of the comic span over 1,000 universities around the world and almost every discipline of study out there, not just the engineering and science fields.

Over the years, one of the unifying themes of the comic, one that grad students seem to respond to, is the idea of procrastination and the guilt and anxiety that comes with it. This is what I address more directly in my talk (The Power of Procrastination), where I tell people that procrastination is not necessarily a bad thing, so they should just relax and go with the flow. Academia currently seems to be more focused than ever on quantity of results, not necessarily quality of results. Students and professors are judged more and more by the number of publications or grants they produce, rather than whether their ideas are truly innovative or not. Creative thinking is not something that is well understood, but it’s hard to see it happening in a pressure-cooker environment.

IVP: Are you connected with others who, like yourself, are creating science-based comics?

JC: Almost everyone has their own secret passion that they pursue in addition to their academic work; mine just happened to be a comic strip with a public audience. In that sense, I don’t see myself as that unique. I’ve met a few people who have started comics while in school, but I guess few saw the need to keep at it and do it on a regular basis. One interesting person I’ve met is Jim Ottaviani, who writes biographical comics about famous physicists and scientists. Another is Karl Iagnemma, a mechanical engineer in robotics who has won all sorts of literary awards for his short stories about academics.

IVP: Do you see your comic as a bridge between the arts and sciences on multiple levels-creative writing, drawing and computer graphics?

JC: I don’t really have such high aspirations for the comic. I’m mostly trying to express myself and hopefully make people laugh. I don’t see art and science as that different, actually. In my experience, they are both about asking questions and finding out the truth.

IVP: What are you particularly passionate about?

JC: I’m passionate about living life. In terms of my work, in comic or engineering research, I’m passionate about capturing any glimpses of truth that can help us understand ourselves more and appreciate what makes us who we are. If that sounds a little vague, what did you expect from someone with a Ph.D.?

Ivonne Vidal Pizarro, Ph.D., is a member of the SACNAS Postdoc Committee and in the process of discovering ways to mix her passions for science and diversity advocacy.

Cham booth

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the Spring 2006 issues of SACNAS News. This article is reprinted with the permission of SACNAS. A PDF version of this article (appearing on page 22) can be downloaded here. The 2005 SACNAS Postdoc Committee exhibition booth featured a book signing by phdcomics.com author Jorge Cham.

last updated 6-Jul-2010
originally published 29-Jun-2006