Viral Mutations - Character Sketch by Jeff Pea
Viral Mutations – Character Sketch by Jeff Pea

Lifeology has just published a new illustrated card deck, a mini-course that covers the topic of virus mutations in an accessible, fun way! The course was written by virology expert and science writer Shauna Bennett, and public health and infectious disease expert Jessica Malaty Rivera (who is currently the SciComm Lead at The COVID Tracking Project). The course is illustrated by fantastic science illustrator Jeff Pea, who by day is a scientist and educator focused on reproductive health and fertility. We were also incredibly honored to have virology expert Adam Lauring and Katherine Spindler fact-check this course for us.

If you’ve ever had questions about how viruses mutate, what that means, and why it matters for our health and our ability to create vaccines against viruses like the flu virus and SARS-CoV-2, this mini-course is for you!

Launch this illustrated course and get a behind-the-scenes look at how and why we created it, below.

Launch “Viruses Mutate. What does that mean for us?”

From writer Shauna Bennett

When deciding on topics for our COVID-19 related courses, we like to address the subjects that people are most worried about. This is especially important when there are misconceptions and unnecessary fears spreading. So, it was clear that we wanted to have a course that addressed potential mutation of SARS-CoV-2.

People tend to get worried whenever they hear about mutations, especially in a virus they are already worried about. And especially because typical news articles will have fear-inducing titles about virus mutation. We wanted to help explain the reality of the situation and provide background about genetic mutation in general.

It’s important for people to have an understanding of what a mutation actually is and what it means – and doesn’t mean. One of the toughest things about the COVID-19 pandemic is that people who normally wouldn’t worry about virus mutation are hearing about it everywhere. For that reason, I’m excited that we get to help clear things up for people by writing a course like this one.

Shauna got her PhD in cell and molecular biology at the University of Michigan (which is how she knows our course reviewers, Adam Lauring and Katherine Spindler!), and studied BK polyomavirus. “After doing research in virology for about 7 years, I switched to teaching and science writing. After spending 2 years doing health science writing for government health agencies, I’ll be starting as a full-time teaching professor at Georgetown University in August. My interest in this topic? Well I’ve never lost interest in virology and love to talk about it whenever I can!”

Viruses mutate. A card from the new Lifeology course on virus mutations.
Viruses mutate. A card from the new Lifeology course on virus mutations.

From the illustrator, Jeff Pea

After going through the script for this course, I knew that I wanted to first establish the major characters involved, including both the humans and the viruses. The visual narrative was aimed to be more playful to avoid vilifying viruses and other microbes that live around and within us. So rather than making them look scary, I wanted to anthropomorphize the different viruses with emotions and expressions throughout.

I then formed a storyboard for the entire course and worked with the rest of the team to get feedback on how the illustrations tie in with the associated text. This live collaborative process was incredibly helpful, in that it allowed me to identify and balance the use of realistic or abstract illustrations. Given the technical content of this course, I opted towards keeping certain topics like DNA recognizable while shifting more complex concepts like DNA and RNA proofreading systems into human behaviors. Once we were all on board with the overall storyboard, I created some test illustrations to finalize the visual style and proceeded to illustrate the rest of the content with my team’s feedback in mind.

Virus Mutation Story Board by Jeff Pea

Jeff Pea is currently a researcher at  Cornell University focused on women’s reproductive health and ovarian disorders. He is also a freelance artist, primarily in science communication and education. Jeff is excited about translating biological sciences, medicine and healthcare to the general public and wants to incorporate innovative and accessible forms of outreach. This naturally drew Jeff into being involved with Lifeology, its courses and its community of scientists and artists.