Away from the lab bench, Khoa Tran is a ‘science superhero’

The research fellow in the Berger Lab and co-founder of JKX Comics makes science and STEM disciplines more accessible by translating abstruse concepts into approachable comics.

As far back as he can remember, Khoa Tran has loved both science and comics. The science half is why he’s currently a postdoctoral research fellow in the Berger Lab at Penn. But the passion for comics is still there, too—evidenced by the Calvin and Hobbes books he keeps on his lab bench and, even more so, by his ever-growing passion project.

Khoa Tran
Khoa Tran, postdoc research fellow in Penn’s Berger Lab and co-founder of JKX Comics. (Image: The Pennsylvania Gazette)

As a co-founder of JKX Comics, Tran works with two other scientists to make science (and STEM disciplines in general) more accessible by translating abstruse concepts into approachable comics.

“As a scientist, it’s an obligation to talk about your science to the general public, but it can be challenging because these are very complex topics,” Tran says. “I think comics allow us to actually deconvolute all that stuff and make it simpler for people to understand.”

“When you see a comic, whether you’re a kid or adult, it sparks some type of joy,” Tran says. And on top of that gut appeal, “illustration can help with something that’s very difficult to explain only in words, and vice versa.” The format also presses academics to make their areas of expertise accessible and entertaining.

A few years ago, the trio launched a project that Tran hopes to eventually replicate at Penn. The “Gaining STEAM!” series matched local artists (including the JKX team) with scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Together, the teams developed comics to showcase the breadth of research underway at their university. Tran says JKX is now in the process of making a printed anthology version of “Gaining STEAM!,” which includes comics on the effects of psychotherapy with transgender clientshow bacteria can affect DNA folding; and what’s going on inside stars.

This story is by Molly Petrilla. Read more at The Pennsylvania Gazette.