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Science and Technology

‘We Really Miss Having Those Experiences.’ Bio Professor’s Cartoons About Lab Life Bring Smiles During Pandemic

Black-and-white drawing of a mammal wearing a button down shirt and glasses while holding a test tube. In the background, a fox wearing a vest and pants shakes rain off an umbrella.
Written By Gabby Ferreira | Illustrations courtesy of Ed Himelblau

The cartoons started appearing on Instagram at the beginning of October: black-and-white drawings of anthropomorphic animals in various Cal Poly lab settings.

Black and white drawing of buffalo and a rabbit hold fishing poles with loops on the end while a lizard watches them from a rock.
Students in Herpetology (BIO 324) travel around California to study diverse reptiles and amphibians.  Lizard-catching poles and snake-proof gaiters are typical equipment.

One cartoon, which depicts a Herpetology lab, shows a buffalo and a rabbit holding what look like fishing poles with loops on the end as they appear to search for something, while a lizard watches them from a rock.

“Every student who’s taken my class knows they’re going to catch lizards with those [poles]!” said Emily Taylor, a Biological Sciences professor. “What I like about these cartoons is that any Cal Poly student who’s taken those labs will understand the references.”

Biological Sciences professor Ed Himelblau creates the lab cartoons, and posts them to his Instagram account, @himelblog. He started drawing the series, which he calls #labtober, as part of the online Inktober challenge, where artists challenge themselves to create drawings for every day of October (Himelblau is still going: his most recent drawing was posted Nov. 11).

The drawings celebrate some of the many unique labs at Cal Poly, the majority of which are not happening this quarter due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Everyone is feeling bad that students are missing out on those experiences,” Himelblau said. “It’s an acknowledgment of what we’re missing out on, and what we’ll hopefully return to in the not-so-distant future.”

Black and white drawing of a small racoon walking into a lab full of scientific equipment.
Introduction to Cell and Molecular Biology (BIO 161) is a first-year course for Biology majors. It can be a little intimidating to walk into a lab full of unfamiliar equipment and this drawing features at least one apparatus associated with each of the labs.

Drea Diaz, a current student in Himelblau’s Introduction to Genetics class and a junior biology major, said Himelblau mentioned his Instagram account at the beginning of the quarter and she immediately started following it.

“It encapsulates each and every student’s feelings about the labs they have to take,” she said. “The drawing for BIO 161 (Introduction to Cell and Molecular Biology) made me laugh too hard as I instantly remembered how hard the class and the labs were and how I never have to do that again.”

Diaz said her favorite cartoon is the one that portrays the Bioinformatics Applications lab (BIO 441), since she’s hoping to minor in that subject. She said she loves how cute the animals look, even as they look tired from coding.

“It’s something I can heavily relate to (in a different manner),” she said.

Himelblau said he tries to feature a broad variety of labs, and takes requests from faculty, students and former students who follow his Instagram account. If he doesn’t know much about the lab, he’ll ask a professor who teaches it to tell him about the most iconic activity they do, an activity that any student who’s taken the class would know about.

Black and white drawing of a hippo, a rhinoceros, a zebra and a rabbit gathered around a computer screen, studying bioinformatics.
In Bioinformatics (BIO/CHEM 441) students learn computational biology, using computers to analyze big data including genome sequences.

“Doing those hands-on labs was one of my favorite parts of Cal Poly,” said Gavin Schroter, a Cal Poly alum and current microbiology and environmental science teacher at Central Coast New Tech High School. “He definitely put in all these little bits from the actual labs, like what the machines look like, or the vans.”

Schroter said he’s put in a few requests of his own for different labs, and looks forward to seeing them post to Instagram. He’s even asked Himelblau for printouts of the drawings to put up in his classroom, because he loved the research he did at Cal Poly and wants to inspire his own students to seek out those opportunities.

“They make me happy,” he said. “I’m always excited to see which ones he’s going to do.”

Taylor said Himelblau’s cartoons have helped cheer her up when she’s feeling down.

Black and white drawing of a bear, beaver and mouse wearing hats in a field, taking notes for a botany class.
 Students take field trips during California Plant Diversity (BOT 433). They travel the state to examine everything from the biggest trees on the planet to the cushion plants of the Sierra mountains.

“Even for those of us who are lucky enough to have jobs, and to have our health and our family’s health, there’s still an underlying current of malaise and discontent where everything is just a little depressing,” Taylor said. “I try to seek out things that will boost my mood, and Ed’s cartoons are just plain cute. They’re creative, and they’re fun.”

Himelblau said he enjoys making the drawings and challenging himself to get better at different techniques. He said he’s open to continuing the series, even after he completes his Inktober challenge.

“This does come out of missing the students,” Himelblau said. “I feel like in Biology and all across the College of Science and Mathemathics and Cal Poly, we really do provide neat opportunities for students to learn in a hands-on way.

“Of all the things that have changed, that’s what’s sort of tough to sacrifice for the time being,” he continued. “But I think I can speak for every instructor at Cal Poly when I say we really miss having those experiences with students and providing those experiences for students and we’re eager to phase those back in a safe way.”