Intriguing Science Art From the University of Wisconsin

From a fish’s dyed nerves to vapor strewn across the planet, images submitted to a contest at the university offer new perspectives of the natural world

ZnO Fall Flowers. Image by Audrey Forticaux, a graduate student in the Chemistry Department
ZnO Fall Flowers. Image by Audrey Forticaux, a graduate student in the Chemistry Department Image by Audrey Forticaux

“The scientist does not study nature because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing, and if nature were not worth knowing, life would not be worth living.”

—Jules Henri Poincare, a French mathematician (1854-1912)

Earlier this month, the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced the winners of its 2013 Cool Science Image contest. From an MRI of a monkey’s brain to the larva of a tropical caterpillar, a micrograph of the nerves in a zebrafish’s tail to another of the hairs on a leaf, this year’s crop is impressive—and one that certainly supports what Collage of Arts and Sciences believes at its very core. That is, that the boundary between art and science is often imperceptible.

Zebrafish neural network
Zebrafish neural network. A fluorescent molecule makes the neurons in the tail of a live zebrafish visible. Image by Pui-ying Lam, a graduate student studying cellular and molecular biology

The Why Files, a weekly science news publication put out by the university, organizes the contest; it started three years ago as an offshoot of the Why Files’ popular “Cool Science Image” column. The competition rallies faculty, graduate and undergraduate students to submit the beautiful scientific imagery produced in their research.

Brain image
Brain image. This image of a monkey’s brain was created, thanks to an MRI technique called diffusion tensor imaging. Image by Christopher Coe, a faculty member in the Psychology Department

“The motivation was to provide a venue and greater exposure for some of the artful scientific imagery we encounter,” says Terry Devitt, the coordinator of the contest. “We see a lot of pictures that don’t get much traction beyond their scientific context and thought that was a shame, as the pictures are both beautiful and serve as an effective way to communicate science.”

Middle Earth
Middle Earth. Slime mold, which typically live as single-celled amoebae, create “flash mobs” when faced with a food shortage. These flash mobs meld into multicellular organisms. Image by Sheryl A. Rakowski, senior research specialist in the Bacteriology Department

Most of the time, these images are studied in a clinical context, Devitt explains. But, increasingly, museums, universities and photography contests are sharing them with the public. “There is an ongoing revolution in science imaging and there is the potential to see things that could never before be seen, let alone imaged in great detail,” says Devitt. “It is important that people have access to these pictures to learn more about science.”

Air Sea Interaction
Air Sea Interaction. Superstorm Sandy is colliding with the East Coast of the United States in this image of water vapor and sea surface temperatures from October 28, 2012. Image by Rick Kohrs, senior instrument technician at the Space Science and Engineering Center

This year, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s scientific community entered 104 photographs, micrographs, illustrations and videos to the Cool Science Image contest—a number that trumps last year’s participation by about 25 percent. The submissions are judged, quite fittingly, by a cross-disciplinary panel of eight scientists and artists. The ten winners receive small prizes (a $100 gift certificate to participating businesses in downtown Madison) and large format prints of their images.

Trichomes. This scanning electron micrograph shows growths, or trichomes, on a leaf. Image by Emily Kief, undergraduate student, Botany Department

“When I see an image I love, I know the second I see it. I know it because it is beautiful,” says Ahna Skop, a judge and geneticist at the university. She admits she has a bias for images capturing nematode embryos and mitosis, her areas of expertise, but like many people, she also gravitates to images that remind her of something familiar. The scanning electron micrograph, shown at the top of this post, for example, depicts nanoflowers of zinc oxide. As the name “nanoflower” suggests, these chemical compounds form petals and flowers. Audrey Forticaux, a chemistry graduate student at UW-Madison, added artificial color to this black and white micrograph to highlight the rose-like shapes.

Hoodia. A macroscopic view of the center of a hoodia flower—a succulent native to South Africa and Namibia. Image by Mo Fayyaz, distinguished faculty associate, Botany Department

Steve Ackerman, an atmospheric scientist at the university and a fellow judge, describes his approach: “I try to note my first response to the work—am I shocked, awed, baffled or annoyed?” He is bothered when he sees meteorological radar images that use the colors red and green to depict data, since they can be difficult for color blind people to read. “I jot down those first impressions and then try to figure out why I reacted that way,” he says.

Lunaria annua
Lunaria annua. The seeds of Lunaria annua can be seen through the plant’s translucent seed pods. In fact, you can even see the umbilical cord-like structure, called a funiculus, that connects the seed to the placenta. Image by Kata Dosa, graduate student, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies

After considering artistic qualities, and the gut reactions they trigger, the panel considers the technical elements of the entries, along with the science they convey. Skop looks for a certain crispness and clarity in winning images. The science at play within the frame also has to be unique, she says. If it is something that she has seen before, the image probably won’t pass muster.

Automeris banus
Automeris banus. This moth, in its larva form, stung Boone when she encountered it in Mexico’s Palenque National Park. Nonetheless, with a swollen hand, the field biologist managed to capture this photograph. Image by Peggy Boone, graduate student, Zoology Department

Skop hails from a family of artists. “My father was a sculptor and my mother a ceramicist and art teacher. All of my brothers and sisters are artists, yet I ended up a scientist,” she says. “I always tell people that genetically I’m an artist. But, there is no difference between the two.”

Beta catenin
Beta catenin. This micrograph shows a cluster of cells in a transgenic mouse, exhibiting high levels of beta catenin, a protein that plays a role in prostate development. Image by Vastal Mehta, research associate in the School of Veterinary Medicine’s Department of Comparative Biosciences

If anything, Skop adds, the winning entries in the Cool Science Image contest show that “nature is our art museum.”

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