Cartoon chemistry

Through clever cartoons and caricatures, one Marquette associate professor found a way to make biochemistry more accessible

With unorthodox methods and a true passion for the subject, associate professor Paul Gasser has found a way to simplify biochemistry and connect with his students.

There are two Paul Gassers who teach at Marquette. The first, an associate professor of biomedical sciences, is a genuinely likeable guy with humble mannerisms and a mind for neuroscience. The second is literally a cartoon — the human Gasser’s personification on paper. As he puts in, a “geeky scientist with glasses.”

Gasser uses cartoons — his self-caricature is just one of his stable of regular doodles — to help students learn one of the most complex subjects they’ll have to master: biochemistry. His style is intentionally simple and sparse, allowing him to make his point in a memorable and often humorous way that doesn’t overshadow the science.

“The goal is to make the material less intimidating,” Gasser says. “There are so many different ways people can connect. Maybe in a cartoon form it clicks better and helps people learn.”

According to Analisa Taylor, a senior in biomedical sciences and Gasser’s student, it works.

“I enjoyed Dr. Gasser’s cartoons,” Taylor says. “They are a very unique way to help students retain information.”

One of Taylor’s favorite cartoons was a visual description of the first step in glycolysis. To the layperson, it’s a fairly complicated process to understand by simply reading about it: Glucose (sugar) enters the cell and is phosphorylated by an enzyme called hexokinase, which prevents it from leaving.

However, Taylor says that Gasser made it relatable through his drawings.

“Dr. Gasser drew a face in an oxygen molecule of glucose, so it became a character entering a party in the cell,” she says. “As soon as it entered, it was given a balloon (phosphorylated) by another party-goer, hexokinase. As a result, it could no longer fit through the door, so it had to stay at the party.

“Dr. Gasser turns molecules into characters and biochemical processes into parties, jokes and other situations,” Taylor says. “The cartoons drew our attention, made lectures more entertaining, and created fun, memorable visuals of complicated processes.”

Gasser was first exposed to cartoons as a tool to teach complex processes when he was an undergraduate. His cell-biology professor at the University of Wyoming, Dr. Robert George, used a similar technique.

“He would draw cell membranes with lipids that had faces on them, things like that,” Gasser recalls. “That’s kind of where the idea started for me. I realized that it was a strong teaching tool, and when I started teaching general biology, I used those ideas and expanded on them.”

After teaching thousands of undergraduates in his nearly 10 years at Marquette, Gasser says the students respond positively.

“I hear about the cartoons a lot on my course evaluations”, he says. “My job is to teach the students, and to do that I have to keep them awake and entertained. Students tell me they remember the concepts based on the pictures. It humanizes the science.”

In 2016, Gasser received the Raynor Teaching Excellence Award, Marquette’s highest teaching honor. In introducing Gasser at the award dinner, Dr. William E. Cullinan, dean of the College of Health Sciences, pointed out Gasser’s use of cartoons as a popular and successful teaching method.

“Dr. Gasser’s use of cartoons as a teaching method illustrates how, at their heart, biochemical reactions are interactions between chemical entities with distinct chemical properties,” Cullinan said in his introduction speech. “Presenting these complex concepts in multiple ways greatly decreases intimidation of the materials and facilitates learning.”

“[Winning the award] was surprising to me,” Gasser says. “You don’t start teaching to win awards, but it really feels good to be recognized at that level, especially when everyone who does this works so hard at it.”

Gasser says that students have often remarked to him that he should make a book of his cartoons, and other students have tried to emulate his work, bringing him ideas they doodled while studying. While he is flattered by the suggestions and imitations, his main goal is to continue making biochemistry fun and accessible.

“I believe that no matter how resistant a student is to biochemistry, it’s possible to tap into a genuine interest in the topic and an excitement for new understanding,” he says. “Most of what I do in class is aimed at waking up the scientist in every student. Once you do this, the rest is fun.”

Adapted from the 2017 issue of Marquette Health Sciences, the annual magazine of the Marquette University College of Health Sciences. Read the entire issue, including the cover story on Marquette alumni bridging medicine science with service, by clicking the image above.