John Jelesko’s resume runs long with all the hallmarks of a serious scientist:
- Fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science
- Primary author of studious journal publications
- Winner of prestigious National Science Foundation fellowships
- Post-doctoral work at University of California, Berkeley
Now the Virginia Tech associate professor of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science can add one more notch to his storied CV: character in a comic.
While his character doesn’t wear a cape or have super-human powers, Jelesko is being prominently featured in the comic that is about something near and dear to Jelesko’s (very human) heart – poison ivy. And the research that he has done in the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences just might help save the day.
Jelesko’s making his claim to fame in the online comic Partners 5, which is about a team of horticulturalists-turned-heroes who are fighting an evil villain named Heart Root and his band of praying mantises who are taking over the world. Toward the end of the strip, the team calls in famed scientist J.J. Burkman (Get it? John Jelesko? J.J.?) who has a few tricks up his sleeve on how to defeat Heart Root.
The casual reader may wonder what all this has to do with poison ivy. But they first need to know that the brainchild behind Partners 5 is no casual poison ivy observer.
Umar Mycka is more than just a horticulturalist at the Philadelphia Zoo. A renaissance man of sorts, Mycka is also passionate about poison ivy – so much so that he has a side business removing it from wherever the dreaded, itch-inducing vine is found. And if you know poison ivy, it’s just about everywhere.
In his nine years in the poison ivy business, Mycka has removed the creeping vine from homes around the east coast as well sets of movies being made by M. Night Shyamalan. One time he removed a 930-pound, 25-year old plant from a New Jersey home. The name of that particularly large and nasty strain of poison ivy is called Heart Root, hence the name of the villain in his comic.
Mycka is so passionate about poison ivy that he holds an annual conference on the topic, which is where he met Jelesko, who is an affiliated faculty member with the Fralin Life Science Institute and the Global Change Center.
Jelesko has done extensive research on poison ivy that includes developing a natural fungus to kill it (spoiler alert: that fungus plays into how J.J. Burkman and the other heroes defeat the villain). In real life, Jelesko and his colleagues are also planning an outing that would be well suited for the Flash — he’s organizing an experiment to hike the entire Appalachian Trail and study the DNA of poison ivy along the trail.
When Mycka launched the comic last year, he began asking Jelesko for advice to make sure the comic was rooted in science. Sure, poison ivy isn’t an actual two-legged menace like it is in the comic, but Mycka makes sure to give Heart Root some characteristics that the plant has. The city is being overrun by Heart Root in part because of climate change — which in reality is going to allow poison ivy to spread more easily. The praying mantises in the comic are there because they thrive where poison ivy does.
When Mycka asked Jelesko if it was OK to write him into comic, Jelesko wasn’t sure at first.
“I was flattered — and scared at the same time,” said Jelesko, who was a Superman fan as a kid. “Would I be portrayed as this nerdy professor who wears glasses and trips over his own feet? Or would it go the other way and I’d be a mad scientist?”
Turns out Jelesko’s alter ego is none of those things.
J.J. Burkman made his debut on the 91st page of the comic, which has a new installment posted every week. He’s bearded and wears glasses (like Jelesko) but otherwise bears little resemblance. J.J. is talking about how urushiol — the oil that makes poison ivy itch — is coursing through another character’s bloodstream.
Jelesko gets to have a say in anything that comes out of his character’s mouth to make sure it is scientifically accurate, but otherwise he lets Mycka have free rein. The strip is written by the graphic novelist Kaja Blackley and drawn by Blackley’s wife, Christina, but Mycka is the driving force.
Jelesko said that while it has been fun to see how he looks when drawn into a comic, it serves a good purpose, too.
“The interface between art and science is very segregated and things like this are a way to bring them together in a way which each of them benefit from the input of the other,” he said. “I see this as a way to get people thinking about poison ivy in a way that is accessible to lots of different people.”
The comic is going to wrap up soon, and Mycka says J.J. will play an important role in the grand finale.
But fear not, loyal readers, this is not the end of J.J. and the band of heroes in Partners 5 who are saving the world from the tyranny of evil poison ivy.
A sequel is in the works.