Researchers launch comic book model to be used in health awareness and research actions


A research team, led by the University of Coimbra (UC), conducted a study to analyze the use of comics in science communication - particularly in health - with the aim of creating a model that can be replicated.
In the scientific article Comics in Science and Health Communication: Insights from Mutual Collaboration and Framing a Research Practice, published in the International Journal of Qualitative Methods, the interdisciplinary team - which involved biologists, illustrators and sociologists - presents the various stages to be considered in the process of producing a comic strip for health awareness purposes (such as the adoption of healthy behaviors throughout life, from childhood onwards), explaining and exemplifying various aspects, ranging from the discussion of the topics to be highlighted to the creation of the various characters and plots.
The case study of this research was the comic strip A Healthy Liver Will Always Deliver! - created by the same research team in 2021 and published by the University of Coimbra Press - aimed at raising awareness of liver diseases and the prevention and treatment of metabolic disorders (such as diabetes or obesity), conveying messages that encourage the promotion of healthy habits and lifestyles through moments of interaction between the various characters.
Throughout the creative process, the research team realized that "processes and methods associated with the creation and impact of comics in science and health communication were still poorly studied and documented," explain the study's coordinators Anabela Marisa Azul and João Ramalho-Santos, researchers at the Center for Neuroscience and Cell Biology of UC (CNC-UC).
The researchers therefore decided to help fill this gap by conducting an investigation that "documents stages, approaches and a theoretical framework that we believe can be reproduced in other communication and research contexts", says the researcher. Anabela Marisa Azul also stresses that comics "are an important didactic and educational resource for approaching and explaining complex science topics, especially when we are trying to give voice to various interlocutors, in this case, people with illnesses, health professionals and researchers, with the same relevance".
In this study, "the participatory and interdisciplinary research approach is detailed, starting with the creation of the design - structure and purpose - which is expected to contribute to improving the understanding of science and health content and to motivating behavior change", explains the study's first author and CNC-UC PhD student, Rui Tavares.
To this end, the article launches a model for developing comics, bringing together qualitative methods (interviews and visual methodologies, such as sketching scientific diagrams) and quantitative methods (such as questionnaires). "We shared a theoretical framework, visual methods and the reflective process between the team members, which resulted in the creation of the drawing," explains Anabela Marisa Azul.
Among the guidelines shared by the research team are "the selection of science and health topics to be addressed, such as cellular mechanisms of metabolism and disease, insulin resistance or the benefits of the Mediterranean diet and physical activity", she points out. Another relevant dimension is "the choice of characters, the links between the different actors and the environment," she adds.
Other aspects include persuasion and empathy from the characters as models of behavior, associating beliefs, attitudes, intentions and self-efficacy. In this case, the cartoon took into account a positive model (for example, a person with a chronic illness who combines treatment with healthy habits, such as eating vegetables and fruit); an antagonistic model (such as a character with an illness who doesn't adopt a healthy lifestyle), and a proactive model (for example, a child initially with an unhealthy pattern who becomes enthusiastic about his attitude towards his health, eating vegetables, helping with household routines, playing outdoors).
 "The experiences between the research team and the people with the disease contributed to the creation and evolution of the design. From this networking we were able to simplify cellular and metabolic events and incorporate habits and routines," concludes the researcher.
This research was carried out as part of the doctoral projects of Rui Tavares and Mireia Alemany i Pagès, students on the UC Doctoral Program in Experimental Biology and Biomedicine, under the supervision of João Ramalho-Santos, a lecturer in the Life Sciences Department of the UC Faculty of Science and Technology and a researcher at CNC-UC, and Anabela Marisa Azul. Collaborating on the study were Sara Araújo, a researcher at the Center for Social Studies, and Neil Cohn, a lecturer at the University of Tilburg (Netherlands).
The study was financed by national funds, from the Foundation for Science and Technology and the Centro Regional Operational Programme (CENTRO 2020); and European funds, from the European Union's Horizon 2020, the European doctoral network of the Marie Sklodowka-Curie Actions (MSCA) programme and the Competitiveness and Internationalization Operational Programme (COMPETE 2020).
The scientific article is available here.


Catarina Ribeiro w/ Rui Marques Simões and Anabela Marisa Azul

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