Alum writes comic books that help kids solve the mysteries of chemistry

May 23, 2022

ALUMNI

As a first-year student at the University of Richmond in 1984, Colleen Kelley loved her chemistry course. But she got a C on her first exam. She walked back to her dorm in Lora Robins Court feeling crushed.

“But to this day, I tell all my students, that C was the greatest gift I could have had,” Kelley said. “Because I buckled down, learned how to study, and ended up becoming a professional chemist.”

At UR, she aced two semesters of chemistry and conducted research with professors on campus. She graduated, earned her doctorate, completed a postdoctoral fellowship in France with a Nobel Prize winner, and served at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research researching malaria and tropical diseases.

Today, as an instructor and laboratory manager at the University of Arizona, Kelley teaches many pre-nursing and pre-dental hygiene students who are required to take a chemistry course to graduate. She made it her life’s mission to help them love chemistry as much as she does, culminating in a comic book series set to publish in August.

“I typically have people that avoided chemistry like the plague,” she said. “That's my favorite, because I feel like I have the best job in front of me, to convert them into chemistry believers.” 

 

Chemistry is like learning a foreign language, where the mastery comes with repetition over time.
Colleen Kelley, 1988 UR graduate

The way to their hearts, she’s found, is through storytelling. She has used everything from Shrek to Kim Possible to help explain different chemical equations.

“On my student evaluations, I would see, ‘I would never miss class, because I'd want to hear the story for the day,’” she said. “Then one day, a student suggested I get my stories published.”

Kelley was immediately inspired to turn those stories into comic books. She thought back to her years at the UR chemistry department, and the storylines came pouring out of her. The series revolves around characters from the M.C. Detective Agency. Chief investigators Poppi, for polonium, and Ray, for radium, meet other elements to solve mysteries, otherwise known as chemical equations. Ray is named after UR chemistry professor Ray Dominey. 

In one story, Poppi and Ray discover that the colors in Vincent van Gogh’s painting “The Starry Night” are vanishing. They attend a benefit concert, where the headlining band The Heavy Metals is raising awareness about the painting losing its luster. At the concert, the duo discovers that by getting different band members, like Sulfur and Cadmium, to play together, the color yellow returns to the painting. Similarly, when a chemist combines sulfur and cadmium, the reaction causes a yellow substance to appear. Readers conduct chemical experiments in their heads, under the guise of solving a mystery.

“It's the exact same thing. It's just without the test tube — and with cuter characters,” Kelley said.

What started as a passion project became a grant-funded research project about how students process chemistry information. 

“What I’ve learned is that they often stumble with the symbols for the different elements,” she said. “But chemistry is like learning a foreign language, where the mastery comes with repetition over time.”

Kelley created the first four comics, and sent them to friends who had elementary-age children. Then, after the students read the material, she would play games with them discussing the elements to see what they had retained.

“I was looking for chemical fluency,” she said. “Could they articulate the symbol? Did they understand the charge on the symbol? And I found that they could very easily after reading the comics.”

She often thinks back to her time growing up and attending UR, and how she would have loved to have these comics to help her avoid that C in the first place.

“I think the comics are important because they can change science education,” she said. “With children, you want to introduce things when their brains still have the plasticity, when they're still willing to take neurologic risk. The comic books are showing me that we can introduce chemistry to 8, 9, and 10-year-olds through these characters and get them used to the symbols. Once they get used to the symbols, then things, like balancing equations, become less daunting.”