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ASU experts bring real-life science to Phoenix Comicon

Professors, grad students to participate in panels, workshops at 'geek' event

cosplayers pose at Phoenix Comicon
May 24, 2017

Phoenix Comicon will celebrate all things geek this weekend, including science fiction, comic books, superheroes, cosplay and fantasy.

Several Arizona State University experts will be part of the four-day event, a pop-culture gathering that will be held at the Phoenix Convention Center on Thursday through Sunday.

Besides the celebrity autograph sessions, costume workshops and gaming seminars, there are several panel discussions that will explore the actual scientific facts — or myths — behind popular shows and movies, including “Star Trek” and “Doctor Who.”

Alyssa Henning, a doctoral student who is in the biological design program at ASU, will speak on three panels at Phoenix Comicon: “I Am The Knight: The Science of ‘Batman the Animated Series’ ” at 1:30 p.m. Friday; “It's Morphin' Time: The Science of Power Rangers” at 10:30 a.m. Sunday and “Bottling Fame and Brewing Glory: The Science of Potions in Harry Potter” at 1:30 p.m. Sunday.

She answered some questions from ASU Now:

Question: How did you get involved in speaking on three Phoenix Comicon panels?

Answer: I just finished my first year in the biological design program. When I was interviewing in 2016, I heard that grad students can be part of Phoenix Comicon and I was super excited.

I got an e-mail from RealtimeSTEAMRealtimeSTEAM is a nonprofit science-education group co-founded by Brian Johnson, a doctoral student in the the Biodesign Institute at ASU., a nonprofit group that sets up all the Phoenix Comicon science panels. They surveyed us for ideas for panels, and then we got to sign up for our favorite ones.

I also was on a panel at Phoenix Comicon Fan FestFan Fest is a smaller event hosted by Phoenix Comicon in the fall. It is aimed primarily at families and children and also focuses more on costuming and comic books., a smaller event last October, and I really liked that.

Q: How will you prepare?

A: Harry Potter, Batman and the Power Rangers are all things I grew up with, but when I watched the shows, I was in elementary school so I don’t remember all the details. I’ll watch a few key episodes to familiarize myself with the content.

Alyssa Henning, who is pursuing a doctoral degree in biological design at ASU, is also interested in exploring the ethical and policy issues involved in the field. She'll speak on three panels at Phoenix Comicon this weekend. Photo by Pete Zrioka/ASU

Q: What kind of science will you talk about at Phoenix Comicon?

A: For Batman, I’ll talk about Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy, both of whom are scientists. Harley Quinn was a psychiatrist, and Poison Ivy was a botanist.

The Power Rangers will be about the science of body mechanics. I play Japanese taiko drums, which are a very dynamic art form that involves using your body, similar to martial arts.  

The Harry Potter panel is the one where my specific field comes into play. My favorite potion is the “polyjuice potion.” It’s very significant in the story, where the main characters turn into other characters in the Harry Potter universe to accomplish specific tasks. Hermione actually failed at the polyjuice potion because she accidentally picked up a cat hair.

I was thinking about how she failed the first time because of a small detail. It took her some time to succeed. And it made me think about how in a science lab we get long, complicated protocols that maybe we’ve never done before. Then you mess up a few times and then you finally get it and then you streamline it and then you’re a pro at it. Which is basically the PhD process.

Q: Will you dress up?

A: Yes. I’m a big fan of thrift-store cosplay using things I already have in the closet. If I buy something, my rule for myself is I have to use it in real life. For the Batman panel, I’m going as Catwoman. Her costume design from “Batman the Animated Series” is all gray. I already have black cat ears. For the Power Rangers I’ll go as the 2017 Yellow Ranger, Trini, which is a yellow t-shirt with a graphic on it.

For Harry Potter, I’ll be a Ravenclaw student. I’ll turn my laser pointer into a wand.

Q: Do convention-goers appreciate the fact that real scientists are there?

A: Yes, at Fan Fest I got a lot of questions from audience members.

I was on two panels, "The Science of ‘Suicide Squad,’” where I dressed up like Katana, and "Gross Science for Kids,' where I talked about green food goo and astronaut food.

A lot of the kids said they wanted to be scientists, and it was fun to talk about what a science lab looks like.

Henning is among many ASU experts who will appear on Phoenix Comicon panels. Some others are:

• David A. Williams, an associate research professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration who studies volcanology and planetary geology: “Star Trek: TNG 30th Anniversary,” 6 p.m. Thursday; “’The Expanse’: When Science on TV is Done Right,” 7:30 p.m. Thursday; “Star Trek: The Original Series: Season 1 50th Anniversary Retrospective,” 10:30 a.m. Saturday; “Star Trek: Discovery — The New Crew,” noon Sunday; “There and Back Again: What NASA Has Learned from Dawn and New Horizons,” 4:30 p.m. Sunday.

• Melissa Wilson-Sayres, an assistant professor in the School of Life Sciences and a computational biologist who is an expert on sex-based biology: “No Controversy to Teach: The Science of Global Warming, Vaccines and Evolution,” 9 p.m. Friday; “IT'S ALIVE: The Science of Frankenstein,” 1:30 p.m. Saturday; “Building the Future: How to become a STEM professional,” noon Sunday.

•  Dani Kachorsky, a graduate student studying literacy and technology in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College: “Truth and Justice: How to inspire the next generation of heroes!” noon Thursday; “Identity & Social Issues: Using Comics & YAL to Discuss Tough Topics in English Language Arts,” 10:30 a.m. Friday; “The Limit is Imagination: How to teach technology in resource-limited settings,” noon Friday; “Minefield: How to teach controversial topics,” 3 p.m. Friday.

Find the complete Phoenix Comicon schedule here.

Top photo: Courtesy of Phoenix Comicon.

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