Graphical Abstracts to Teach Neuroscience

March 2, 2022
Xiaomeng Han

In MCB80, The Neurobiology of Behavior, many Harvard undergraduates encounter scientific papers for the first time. As a way to augment students’ understanding of influential research papers in neuroscience, Media & Design Fellow Xiaomeng Han (PhD candidate in Neuroscience) has developed “graphical abstracts”—a form that uses illustration and graphic design to explain, and in a sense tell a story about, key concepts in neuroscience.

As a Media & Design Fellow at the Learning Lab, Xiaomeng’s project integrates—and allows Xiaomeng to apply—her interests in illustration and science communication. The graphical abstracts that Xiaomeng has created for MCB, one of which is pictured below, illustrate for students how original research in neuroscience was conducted, helping students gain a better understanding of important findings and processes. This type of visual communication draws on Xiaomeng’s experience as an illustrator, as well as her academic expertise.

Working in the genre of graphical abstracts aligns with broader priorities in STEM fields, allowing Xiaomeng to craft a project that draws on disciplinary conventions. According to academic journals database Elsevier, “Journals are increasingly requesting the submission of a graphical or visual abstract alongside the body of the article.” The Learning Lab has seen a corresponding increase in interest from faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates who are interested in communicating their findings to a broader audience through the use of infographics and illustrations.

Pursuing the graphical abstracts project also presents other teaching and learning opportunities. In support of the graphical abstracts project, for instance, Xiaomeng led a tutorial at the Learning Lab in Adobe Procreate, a tool that can be used in illustration/graphic design projects that span academic disciplines and fields. Though Xiaomeng’s central goal for the graphical abstracts project is to create course materials that future MCB MDFs and TFs can share with students enrolled in neuroscience courses, Xiaomeng’s Procreate tutorial could serve as a resource for any Harvard student interested in how visual modes can be used to convey and analyze data.

If you are interested in learning more about graphical abstracts or getting support for creating your own, get in touch with the Learning Lab.

Example of a "graphical abstract" describing the Hodgkin-Huxley model of the action potential.