Jinaffe Cartoons: where Art meets Science

For this Meet the Artist post, we interviewed Jingyuan E. Chen (or Jinaffe, I should say!), Instructor at the Martinos Center by day, and cartoonist by night! Get to know Jingyuan artist in this post and don’t forget to check out her cartoons!


We know Jingyuan the scientist. Can you introduce us to Jingyuan the artist? 

“Ehm I would not call myself an artist.. I am just someone who likes to draw cartoons during her free time :)
I started when I was at grad school, and at the time I was drawing about MRI actually! I had a lot of ideas back then and it was so much fun to put them on paper. I have to admit that I lost a lot of inspirations and motivations over years; but then during the pandemic I went back to it and started drawing about the virtual life.”

What is art for you?

“Art is a way to cheer myself up. Sometimes I feel tired or stressful about life, but when I draw cartoons I know I can enter a different world, I just concentrate on the cartoon and it is a wonderful way to feel good and positive again. You know, when you grow up you have to behave more like an adult, think like an adult, act like an adult…but when I draw cartoons I can get away from the adult world for a bit. Drawing is a safe space where I feel I can protect some parts of my non-adult self. Art makes life less boring.”

When did you start drawing?

“At grad school. I started by drawing some cartoons and giving them as gifts to my friends. And then really I was encouraged by them to do it more regularly. The first cartoon I drew was about fMRI (!), and my friends, who were not studying medical imaging, finally knew what my research was about. After posting some MR cartoons on a Chinese web platform for a while, one day I even got an email from someone who told me he got interested in MRI after seeing my cartoons. He is now a grad student at Johns Hopkins! That made me think maybe I could have been more useful to the society as a cartoonist than as a scientist :)”

Do you have a cartoonist hero?

“Oh yeah I do! Have you ever read Phd Comics? The author, Jorge Cham, is my hero! He really inspired me to start drawing, while being an engineer. He did his PhD in mechanical engineering at Stanford. His thesis acknowledgment was a cartoon which you can find on his wikipedia page, and that actually motivated me to do the same! I also made my thesis acknowledgment a series of cartoons. After some unsuccessful faculty search, Jorge quit the academia and decided to be a full-time cartoonist. He is now collaborating with many researchers around the world to make cartoon series about science! Very inspiring!”

What is your favorite cartoon you drew?

“Probably the acknowledgment of my PhD thesis!  At the time I was very stressful about the defense, so I made all the acknowledgement slides cartoons. It feels very personal and I am very glad I did it. The downside is that after my defense everyone only remembered the acknowledgment part and nothing about my science…!”

How do you see the relationship between art and science? 

“I think there is a strong link between science and art. It’s weird… sometimes I actually wonder whether what I am doing is more behavioral art than science… Instead of focusing on the real impact of my research to the society, sometimes I really just enjoy the process of solving engineering problems and pleasing myself—in this way, it is a bit similar to art. Science is more rigorous obviously, but I see them on a continuum and I think, to some extent, a scientist can be thought of as an artist too.”

Have you ever thought of leaving science to be an artist?

“Yes, at one point I seriously thought about it. Although I have no hope that I will be successful as a cartoonist, to be honest, I do not think I am really good. But I was thinking of maybe merging art and science and drawing about the life of scientists… just something unique. So there was one time during pandemic when there was a gap in my VISA status and I really thought about dedicating myself to drawing if things would not resolve in a short time frame… But I didn’t have the chance to try it out, it did not take long for my VISA to come back and I just went back to work. So there was a brief moment…But Sometimes I still cannot help thinking whether I should devote fixed time to cartooning every week… a better work-life balance?”

What motivates you to share your work?

“Mostly to make myself happy, and also the idea to help people understand science better. My parents follow my cartoons and they can understand what I do that way. Several years ago, there was one cartoon about NMR phenomena and MRI that I posted online, it got A LOT of likes. People, including the official WeChat blogs of GE and Siemens medical imaging in China contacted me to ask whether they could repost it on their blogs. I also got messages from some medical school students telling me that they review my cartoons to prepare for their finals. And that really, really motivated me to continue this series, so I further did some cartoons on perfusion, diffusion and K-space, etc. Anyway, that was one of the times that I felt I was doing something useful to the society. I haven’t made cartoons for science for quite a while, maybe I can pick it up and share them on InsideOut! It would be fun!“


You can’t wait to see more cartoons from Jingyuan? Check out her dedicated InsideOut gallery!

And check out these links to explore how cartoons and science can get together!




Contributed by Chiara Maffei