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When Jorge Cham adapted his hugely popular PhD cartoon for film, he eschewed animation and hired real Caltech students and academics for his comically true-to-life doctoral tales. Paul Jump reports

Absent-minded academics and scientists who are a few base pairs short of a double helix are as much a cinema staple as maverick cops and superheroes with a troubled past. For all the recent rise in 3D film, Jorge Cham believes that researchers are rarely portrayed in ways that transcend that stereotypical dimension.

So when it came to making a film based on his highly successful PhD Comics series, the key theme he wanted to convey was that academics and research students are “real people with relationships, multiple talents and passions”.

Cham has spent the past 14 years highlighting the humorous side of the downsides of life as a research postgraduate – the huge workload and the inherent sense of anonymity and personal limbo. His Piled Higher and Deeper strip, subtitled “the ongoing chronicle of life (or the lack thereof) in grad school”, is syndicated all over the world and his website, where the strips are archived, receives about 7 million unique visitors a year. More recently, the website has also acquired some video content, in which Cham, who holds a PhD in robotics from Stanford University, interviews researchers about scientific concepts such as dark matter.

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