Drawing On Her Experience
How one imaginative researcher teaches entomology through illustration.
Worms, ants, spiders — like most kids, Carly Tribull grew up shooing them, stomping them, or swatting them away. It wasn’t until years later that she developed an interest in insects and, in effect, got the bug about entomology.
Today Dr. Carly Tribull is an assistant professor of biology and an entomologist who researches the predatory practices of parasitic wasps, the species that invade the bodies of other insects and breed their young inside them. While that sounds more like the plot of a horror movie, killer wasps are more than just the center of her professional world: they are also the subject of a comic book she drew in graduate school, entitled Carly’s Adventures in Wasp Land: Nature’s Horror — Parasitoid Wasps.
Populated by anthropomorphic wasps who say things such as “Aw, shucks,” “Howdy,” “Who could possibly like us?” and finally, “I’m tired of feeling bad about what I am!”, the comic is just one in a series in which Tribull is a character who teaches about wasps, the one element of the comic that is not far from reality.
Originally created for middle school students, Tribull now draws biology comics for college students, handing out chapters as the semester progresses, with the intention of eventually assembling the content into an online textbook. She expects to complete this ambitious project in two years and make it available at no cost to students and educators worldwide.
“The response from my students has been positive,” she says. “Educators have known for a while that designing a lecture topic as a narrative is very effective, and comics only solidify that approach.”
Though Tribull loathed insects and creepy crawlers growing up, she loved drawing other creatures — dinosaurs (she pursued paleontology at one time because of them), dragons, and other fantastical creatures. She studied art in high school in Florida and the subject ignited her comics career.
After earning her PhD in 2015 at the Richard Gilder Graduate School at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, Tribull taught for two years at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. But she yearned to return to New York, and selected Farmingdale because, she says, it is an “undergraduate, teaching-focused institution.”
She even believes her use of comics as a teaching tool was a factor in FSC offering her the opportunity to join the faculty.
One wonders how her comic books influenced the people who interviewed her for the job of assistant professor. Dr. Tribull has a theory.
”I think the search committee was interested in any potential faculty who were interested in engaging with students in unique ways,” she says. “Since I’ve been here, people have been pretty supportive of the idea of comics as a viable teaching tool.”
Dr. Tribull also is passionate about bringing diversity into the field and classroom. One way she does that is to seek out and mentor non-traditional students.
“I’ll be working to mentor students who are underrepresented minorities in the STEM fields,” she says.
“I’m also particularly interested in mentoring women, first-generation college students, and other non-traditional college students. As a comic artist, I think about the diversity of my characters a lot — it’s easy to unconsciously fall into the trap of drawing people who look like you, and I want all of my students to be able to see themselves in these comics.”
Visit Biology Comics to learn more about Carly’s free, comics-based textbook for high school and college biology students.