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National Science Foundation

2008 Winners

Captions from Rachel Zelkowitz, Science 321: 1767-1775 (2008). Full story in Science magazine.

Categories

Photography

First Place

The Glass Forest
The Glass Forest
Credit: Mario De Stefano, The Second University of Naples

Diatoms are tiny creatures, but they play a big role in creating breathable air; they produce as much as 40% of the world's oxygen. They can also possess an ethereal beauty, as the winning entry, "The Glass Forest" by Mario De Stefano of The Second University of Naples, Italy, shows. De Stefano used a scanning electron microscope to capture these images of the diatom Licmophora ehrenbergii from the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Italy.

The title refers to the fact that diatoms are unique in using silica to build their cell walls and to the interactions between the diatom and its host, which echo the interplay of a forest. Each green, triangle-shaped diatom measures about 30 micrometers across. There are about 100,000 species of diatoms, the largest of which can reach up to 2 millimeters in length. The micrograph shows L. ehrenbergii clinging to the marine invertebrate Eudendrium racemosum, in brown. De Stefano intended the image to depict the complex interactions that occur among organisms on the microscopic scale. "This is the study of a community, ... the same community as you would find in a rainforest."

Panel of finalist judges member Malvina Martin praises "The Glass Forest" for its arresting beauty: "This is an invisible piece of our world that plays such an important role. Everyone was pretty awed by that."

Honorable Mention

String Vibrations
String Vibrations
Credit: Andrew Davidhazy, Rochester Institute of Technology

A twist of the fingers sends a string into a feverish dance. Photographer Andrew Davidhazy of the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York set out to photograph that dynamic by attaching a tiny motor to a cotton string. But he got overzealous in powering up the motor, forcing an atypical torque in the string. "I happened to overspin the string and all of a sudden, the picture was more exciting," he says. Davidhazy used a Canon digital camera to document the movement. The total exposure time for "String Vibrations" was about 2 seconds, during which the string spun some 10 to 20 times, the photographer says.

Honorable Mention

Squidsuckers: The Little Monsters That Feed the Beast
Squidsuckers: The Little Monsters That Feed the Beast
Credit: Jessica D. Schiffman and Caroline L. Schauer, Drexel University

Crunch. The satisfying sound of a crushed cockroach comes from the destruction of its chitin-based exoskeleton. The white, fanglike circles in this electron micrograph of squid suckers are also chitin, but they are not so easily crushed. Their scant 400-micrometer diameter belies the true power of the suckers. A squid uses them to latch onto prey and force the unfortunate creature to its beak, where it is readily slurped down. "They're just tiny things, but they really keep the beast alive," says Jessica Schiffman, a doctoral student in material science engineering at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She compiled the image while researching chitin properties in the lab of Caroline Schauer. The iconic film Little Shop of Horrors inspired the color scheme, she says.

Honorable Mention

Polymazing
Polymazing
Credit: Ye Jin Eun and Douglas B. Weibel, University of Wisconsin, Madison

The combination of polyethylene glycol (PEG) and polydimethylsiloxane creates what Ye Jin "Jenna" Eun calls a "sandwich of polymers." But when the University of Wisconsin, Madison, doctoral student added water to her creation, it was clear the union of these polymers didn't emulate peanut butter and jelly's happy marriage. PEG wants to expand when it encounters water, but the stiffer polyethylene copolymer won't permit it. So PEG stretches vertically instead, creating the hills and valleys seen here. The contortions make the polymer combo unusable for the original purpose: mounting cell samples. But Eun, who works under the direction of biochemist Douglas Weibel, says the result of the failed experiment was so beautiful, she photographed the image. She used a Zeiss stereoscope and a Nikon CCD camera.

Illustration

First Place

Zoom into the Human Bloodstream
Zoom into the Human Bloodstream
Credit: Linda Nye and the Exploratorium Visualization Laboratory, The Exploratorium

A discussion of the human circulatory system typically begins and ends with the heart. But in this illustration, the team manipulates perspective to show the relationship between the tiniest oxygen atom and the comparatively giant organ. Jennifer Frazier, who directed the project by San Francisco's Exploratorium, says her team used a common technique in landscape paintings to fit multiple scales into a single image. "Something very large can appear small because it's on the horizon, and something very small can appear large because it's in the foreground."

In the image, illustrated by artist Linda Nye, a human heart is in the background and a viewer's eye follows the artery downward to an interior view of the bloodstream in the foreground. The magnification at each level of the image increases 10-fold to show red blood cells and even the oxygen atom within a heme group with colorful clarity.

The goal is to show the interactions between the macro and micro. Frazier says "The system requires multiple scales to make things happen." The image is meant for display within museums, and its appropriateness for that audience impressed judges. Says panel of finalist judges member Alisa Machalek, "It really accomplished the goals of using art to explain science." Fellow judge Michael Keegan adds, "It's just a good way of presenting that macro-micro situation where tiny parts of the circulatory system contribute to the life of the whole body."

Honorable Mention

Visualizing The Bible
Visualizing The Bible
Credit: Chris Harrison, Carnegie Mellon University, and Christoph Römhild, North Elbian Evangelical Lutheran Church

The first illuminated bibles were produced in the early Middle Ages by monks who painstakingly detailed illustrations for their sacred verse. Chris Harrison, a doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Christoph Römhild of the North Elbian Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hamburg, Germany, present an illustrated Bible with a modern twist. Römhild started with a list of verses in different versions of both the Old and New Testaments that referred to figures or ideas from earlier passages, then combed through both books for additional examples. Using a custom-built computer program, Harrison translated the trove of data into "Visualizing the Bible." Each bar on the graph along the bottom represents a chapter of the Bible; the bar length corresponds to the number of verses in the passage. The rainbowlike arcs represent references from a chapter in one book to a chapter in another. "It almost looks like one monolithic volume," Harrison says.

Honorable Mention

3D Imaging of Mammalian Cells with Ion-Abrasion Scanning Electron Microscopy
3D Imaging of Mammalian Cells with Ion-Abrasion Scanning Electron Microscopy
Credit: Donald Bliss and Sriram Subramaniam, National Library of Medicine, NIH

The delicate swirls of pink and gold in this image could have come from Botticelli's brush, but there's nothing angelic about the subject, a melanoma cell. It is seen here by an ionabrasion scanning electron microscope that uses a method of 3D imaging being developed at the U.S. National Cancer Institute. The microscope sends beams of gallium ions across an object, blasting away layers of the surface 20 nanometers at a time. By scanning each newly created surface, the microscope can compile three-dimensional images with unprecedented detail and resolution, says image creator Donald Bliss, a medical illustrator at the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland. The images show almost too much detail--"It's like looking at a bowl of spaghetti suspended in clear Jell-O," he says--so Bliss chose to highlight some of the data. Here, he shows the nucleus as the dark sphere, engulfed by mitochondria (in pink) and endoplasmic reticulum (in gold).

Informational Graphics

First Place

Mad Hatter's Tea From Alice's Adventures in a Microscopic Wonderland
"Mad Hatter's Tea" From Alice's Adventures in a Microscopic Wonderland
Credit: Colleen Champ and Dennis Kunkel, Concise Image Studios

While wandering through the forest of wonderland, Alice stumbles upon three beetles having tea. That's not exactly how Lewis Carroll's classic tale goes, but this recreation of the Mad Hatter's tea could certainly belong in the story.

Freelance illustrator Colleen Champ produced her own version of the scene using micrographs by photomicrographer Dennis Kunkel. The goal was to demonstrate the fantastic nature of reality by arranging the actual images in fanciful ways, Champ says: "You cannot create anything yourself that hasn't already been created in nature."

She used Photoshop to transform three beetles into the Mad Hatter, March Hare and the sleepy Dormouse. They sip tea at a table made of butterfly wings, set in a field of crystallized vitamin C while aphids fly overhead. A key beneath the main illustration identifies the source of each image, including the mold spores that make up the vast underground.

Kunkel says the work is a fruitful partnership between science and art: "She's taken images from the minute world and put them together in such a way as to make them really compelling, exciting, and funny to look at." Kunkel plans to develop a series of children's books based on Champ's images.

The interplay between fact and fancy also impressed the judges, who used the words "innovative" and "delightful" to describe the piece. Panel of finalist judges member Michael Keegan called it a "palatable introduction" to science, saying it provides an excellent way to attract children to the subject matter.

Honorable Mention

Stream Micro-Ecology: Life in a Biofilm
Stream Micro-Ecology: Life in a Biofilm
Credit: Andrew Dopheide and Gillian Lewis, University of Auckland

One man's slime is another man's biofilm. Research technician Andrew Dopheide of the University of Auckland in New Zealand spends his days studying biofilm in streams under the direction of Gillian Lewis. Hoping to foster wider appreciation for his subject, Dopheide put together an informational graphic on the science of slime. He shows different magnifications of the primary biofilm dwellers: algae, bacteria, protozoa, cyanobacteria, fungi, and viruses. Factoids containing a brief description of the organism and its role in the system accompany the images. "There are all these quite fascinating things going on in this layer of slime. It's an important aquatic ecosystem," Dopheide says. The poster has already been distributed to schools and at scientific conferences in the country.

Interactive Multimedia (screen shots)

First Place

Genomics Digital Lab: Plant Cells
Genomics Digital Lab: Plant Cells
Credit: Jeremy Friedber and Tommy Sors, Spongelab Interactive, and Dr. David Salt, Purdue University

"Plants are boring." Which biology teacher hasn't heard that complaint? Jeremy Friedberg and his colleagues at Spongelab Interactive in Toronto, Canada, set out to give teachers an effective response with a computer program and educational game dedicated to plant biology. The Genomics Digital Lab uses flash animation and 3D graphics to present plant life in a dynamic light. As the name implies, the program focuses on the genomics approach to exploring biology. A few clicks of the mouse take users deep inside a plant cell, where they can choose among the chloroplast, mitochondria and nucleus for further exploration. Each organelle lab contains a brief explanation of its function and a game in which students must pick the best light, water and soil conditions for the plant to ensure the organelle's optimal performance. The goal is to help students understand the connection between the tiny organelles and the entire plant, Friedberg says: "We have to look at the whole and how something fits in that whole."

The Genomics Digital Lab enjoyed a surge of popularity when Apple, Inc. posted the program on its website in January. To date, teachers in 22 different countries have downloaded the program, Friedberg says.

The interactive nature of the program earned high marks from the judges. "I remember studying very basic cell biology and being bored to death, but the fact that it was an interactive computer game you could get your hands on and see direct results of too much sun and not enough sun was very pertinent in this day and age when folks are so far removed from the plant and the planet," says panel of finalist judges member Malvina Martin.

Honorable Mention

Exploring Life's Origins Exploring Life's Origins
Exploring Life's Origins
Credit: Janet Iwasa, Massachusetts General Hospital

The question of how life first emerged lies at the heart of one of today's most contentious science debates. Biochemist Janet Iwasa wanted to fill an apparent gap in most documentaries on the origins of life. There were few visual explanations of how the first cells may have formed and operated on a molecular level, she says. So, while serving a fellowship at Massachusetts General Hospital, she produced this website using animation to illustrate topics such as how the original RNA polymers were assembled from nucleotides. See the website at http://www.exploringorigins.org.

Noninteractive Multimedia (screen shots)

Honorable Mention

A Window into Life A Window into Life A Window into Life
A Window into Life
Credit: Kenneth Eward, Travis Vermilye

Even while at rest, our bodies pulse with furious activity. Neurons fire, cells divide, and proteins form, only to be dismantled in short order. This movie shows vignettes of the microscopic plane of life on which our everyday lives depend. Designed for display within the Cincinatti Children's Hospital Medical Center, the movie explores some of the basic science behind the hospital's research projects. Freelance illustrator Kenneth Eward and freelance animator Travis Vermilye, who collaborated to produce the film, give a whirlwind tour of the assembly-line process by which RNA builds proteins. They also sneak up close to a neural synapse as it fires a message to a nearby muscle fiber and show how the eye develops from the embryonic stage to the mature form. The goal is to present the dynamic complexity of life on the smallest scale: "I'd like people to be inspired by the beauty that goes on inside of us," Eward says.
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Honorable Mention

Smarter Than the Worm Smarter Than the Worm
Smarter Than the Worm
Credit: Mirjam Kaplow and Katharina Strohmeier, Fraunhofer FIRST

When the dreaded error message flashes on the screen, it's easy to envision an army of malevolent gremlins wreaking havoc on your computer. The real mechanism of a computer worm or virus isn't quite that dramatic, but producer Mirjam Kaplow and Katharina Strohmeier of Fraunhofer FIRST in Berlin, Germany, play on that tension to explain how those pests operate and how computer software protects against them. "We came up with the idea of making a movie with the symbol on a metaphorical level," Kaplow says. The story takes place at the gates of a fortress city, where a guard examines each visitor before granting them access. But simple disguises--a new bow tie or a pair of sunglasses--confuse the guard, and he lets a worm slip through. While the city burns, the narrator explains how a new type of software can keep a computer smarter than the worm, whatever that worm looks like.
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Honorable Mention

Fighting Infection by Clonal Selection Fighting Infection by Clonal Selection Fighting Infection by Clonal Selection
Fighting Infection by Clonal Selection
Credit: Etsuko Uno and Drew Berry, The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research

In 1960, Australian immunologist Frank Burnet won a Nobel Prize for his contributions to immunology. Etsuko Uno and colleagues at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, Australia, explain Burnet's clonal selection theory in an animation of the body's response to Streptococcus pyogenes, the bacterium that causes strep throat. Proteins from the invader enter the lymph node and grab the attention of one of billions of B cells. That B cell then clones itself thousands of times and sends antibodies via the bloodstream to the infection site. There, the antibodies bind to the strep bacteria, acting as a red flag that alerts other immune system cells to destroy the infectious agent. "We hope that the animation will pique people's interest in how the immune system works and that they will appreciate the impact of Burnet's clonal selection theory on our understanding of the immune system," Uno says.
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