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JALA & JBS Art of Science Contest Uncovers Beauty of Meaningful Work

Every day, SLAS members work hard on important scientific projects in their labs, and sometimes, they take a step back simply to enjoy the beauty that can surface through the process. This year, SLAS was fortunate to have many of its members share some of their most mesmerizing scientific images.


In the fall of 2011 the Journal of Biomolecular Screening (JBS) and Journal of Laboratory Automation (JALA) Editorial Boards put in motion the 2012 JALA & JBS Art of Science Contest. With prizes and accolades at stake, the contest guidelines were simple:

"Submit a high resolution jpg file of your favorite cell structures, assay results or other lab creations. They might be interesting, beautiful or just plain COOL! Visualization plays an important role in the analysis and presentation of scientific work. In journal articles, images often communicate ideas and information in ways that text, tables, charts, graphs or equations cannot. Sometimes scientific images surpass this purpose and create shapes, patterns and designs that capture attention and imagination. These are the images JALA and JBS seek for the 2012 Art of Science Contest."

The results were extraordinary.

"The incredibly beautiful images submitted for the JALA & JBS Art of Science Contest reinforced, for me, the creativity inherent in those who work in the laboratory science and technology field," expresses JALA Editor-in Chief Dean Ho, Ph.D., Northwestern University, Evanston, IL.

Contest Winners

Judges, comprised of members of the JALA Editorial Board, JBS Editorial Board and SLAS Board of Directors, cast votes to determine one grand prize winner and named 10 honorable mentions. View the winners.

Grand Prize Winner Ling Zhang of Tohoku University, Sendai, Japan, received an iPad2. The 10 honorable mentions each received a $50 Amazon gift card.

Zhang described the image he captured as a "large-scale and chemically stable SERS substrate for single molecule detection. Introducing thermal contraction of pre-strained polymer substrates made quasi-periodic wrinkles. Plenty of nanogaps with various spacings as well as abundant nanotips and bowtie nanoantenna structures are obtained at the ridges of the wrinkles introduced by film shrinking. Our robust substrate made by wrinkled nanoporous films contains a high number density of electromagnetic ‘hot spots' with a local SERS enhancement larger than 109."

When he learned he was the winner, Zhang gushed: "Thank you so much. I cannot believe that I am the winner!" More on Zhang's work can be found in an article published late in 2011 in Nature Publishing Group's Scientific Reports.

Other images submitted to the contest and created in dozens of different ways included highly magnified droplets of various substances, colorful stem cell cultures and interesting mouse tissue stains.

From North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC, Vindhya Kunduru describes her honorable mention image as "The golden corn fields in the horizon are an effect of salt crystallization after evaporation of PBS. The gold plates on the bottom and top sections of the image are gold microelectrodes. This is a natural image with no color enhancement.

"This was an accident in the lab," Kunduru explains. "The two gold electrodes (partially showing circular pads) are electrodes used for applying AC fields for performing dielectrophoretic separation of polystyrene beads on the chip. The separation criterion established for bead sorting was 2V, but that day I mistakenly applied 20V to the electrodes which instantly evaporated the buffer solution leaving behind the beads and the dissolved salts in the buffer to crystallize. The whole effect later appeared like corn stalk fluff."


"I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."

-- Thomas Alva Edison


Don Pottle, The Schepens Eye Research Institute, Boston, MA, explains that his image came about while he was examining used contact lenses for contamination under a confocal microscope. During the procedures, he noticed crystals forming near the lenses as they dried. Intrigued by this observation, he took samples of the commercially produced contact lens solution and allowed drops of different sizes to dry on a standard microscope slide. He was able to identify over 21 different crystals of solutes that are used in the preparation of contact lens solutions.

"I love everything about this image," he indicates. "First, I am greatly impressed by the fact that solutions in which contact lenses are packaged are really complex mixtures of several substances; some that assure sterility and preservation, some that facilitate comfort for the wearer and some that stabilize the shape of the lenses. The formulae for the mixtures are proprietary to the contact lens company, I am certain. Second, the variations and complexities of the crystals are stunningly beautiful and truly entertaining. The image that I provided represents a small section of the panorama of crystal formations that I encountered."

George McNamara, Ph.D., manager of the University of Miami's light microscopy and image analysis core facility, has had variations of his winning image, Tiki_Goddess, around for a while.

"Tiki_Goddess came about because the first time I scanned in the mouse slide on a Meyer Instruments Pathscan Enabler, my supervisor at the time, Dr. Tom Coates of Children's Hospital Los Angeles said, ‘that's a tiki!'" he explains. "We both connected a tiki with a deity, so it became Tiki_God. That first scan was headless, because the Pathscan is a modified 35 mm slide scanner that could only scan up to 36x24 mm at a time. I returned to the lab, scanned in the head, photoshopped it on top and called it Tiki_Goddess."

McNamara submitted his later version of Tiki_Goddess to the JALA & JBS Art of Science Contest. It is a 40x15 mm mouse tissue section, stained using Masson's Trichrome and scanned on an Olympus NanoZoomer digital slide imaging system. He purchased the slide from Carolina Biological Supply Co.

"I have a printout of Tiki_Goddess on the back of my University of Miami photo ID card," McNamara adds. "Since half the time the card flips to my face and printed name, and half the time it flops to Tiki_Goddess, I get the question, ‘What is that?' a lot, but not as often as some might think with buildings and elevators full of nominally inquisitive scientists and academic physicians. And I have a 6'9" printout – the same height as Alonzo Mourning – a famous, at least in Miami, Miami Heat basketball player in the hallway outside my main imaging core facility laboratory," he jokes. "Visualizing data is an incredibly important tool in science. I acquire data, not create art. Sometimes the data is cool enough be art, but well acquired data is great in its own right."

The image provided by Yi Zhang, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD, was generated using the micro magnetic gyromixer for droplet microfluidics designed to accelerate the mixing rate in the sessile droplet. Zhang says this image was acquired while they were examining the mixing of two types of quantum dots (green Qdot 525 and orange Qdot 605) inside the droplet with the assistance of the gyromixer.

"The gyromixer rotated on the droplet surface and twisted the fluorescent streams to enhance the mixing rate," Zhang explains. "This particular fluorescent image is an extract from a video clip that monitors the entire mixing process. I love the image as the fluorescent streams resembles a heart shape and it's glowing!"

See the March 2012 issue of Microfluidics and Nanofluidics for more information on the gyromixer that Zhang and colleagues developed.

Rakesh Karmacharya, The Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, Cambridge, MA, said that his image came about while they were trying to generate mature neuronal cells from human induced pluripotent stem cells. They labeled the cells with a neuronal marker as well as a synaptic marker to find out if they could see mature neurons that were making synapses.

"The image shows the meandering extensions of axons and dendrites and the synaptic markers along the extensions," he describes. "Great imagery manages to present the beauty of nature that is uncovered by scientists through methods that often seem arcane and technical to the public. I try to capture the harmony and interplay of the cells that I study."

Xianting Ding, University of California, Los Angeles, CA, said they were studying emerging structures with small molecules and the mathematical mechanisms behind this phenomenon.

"JNK inhibitor SP600125 is a known molecule that dissolves poorly in water," Ding explains. "The picture was taken by adding a DMSO droplet containing highly concentrated SP600125 into DI water. This beautiful nanofiber structure was self-assembled in less than 10 seconds. The mechanism is under investigation right now.

Constantinos Zeinalipour of C. CySilicoTech Research Limited, Nicosia, Cyprus said he came up with his winning image when he was working on a paper in which he used computational chemistry (3D chemical simulations).

"The paper topic was to understand the coverage-dependent adsorption energy trends of carbon monoxide to a rhodium cluster," he says. "So as you can see the topic of the paper was kind of irrelevant to the topic of the image which presents the commensalistic relationship evolved from the symbiosis of ‘viruses' and a ‘cell culture.' The structure of the cells is such that they generate cavities very similar to the shape of the cells in which the viruses try to enter. When you do art your brain does not necessarily work on everyday questions or tasks. In fact other parts of the brain are monitored, as artistic expressions usually comes from the subconscious brain. Imagery plays a crucial role in effective science. Although it is not quantitative, it can yield qualitative results in a reasonable amount of time."

See more images from Zeinalipour.

Why Have a Contest?

JBS Editor-in-Chief Robert M. Campbell, Ph.D., Eli Lilly and Company, Indianapolis, IN, believes that the contest was encouraging to existing and potential journal authors from within the SLAS membership and beyond.

"Our authors are amazingly committed to their work," he explains. "So many of them appreciate the value of visual presentation of information to help readers understand the underlying concepts in their manuscripts. Providing a way to showcase the beautiful imagery resulting from experimentation was a means to further encourage visual exploration."

The granddaddy of all science/art contests is perhaps the annual GE Healthcare IN Cell Analyzer Image Contest, with winning images boldly displayed in New York's Times Square. See the 2011 winners.

SLAS, of course, is not the first professional society to hold such a contest. The Bio-Education and Art for Science Innovation Society has been holding The Science as Art contest for several years now. According to the society website: "Since art is valued for its capacity to communicate to people in a way that words cannot, it presents itself as a way for making the most complex issues of science comprehensible to anyone and everyone. The ultimate goal is to reignite public interest in and subsequent support for the sciences by making basic research more accessible and meaningful to everyone with art." Take a look at the 2011 winners.

For its 100th anniversary year in 2012, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) is launching the BioArt: Biomedical Image Competition. Per the website: "Each day scientific investigators produce thousands of images during the course of their research. FASEB believes that these images are an important, yet underutilized, resource in the community's effort to engage and educate the general public and policy makers about biomedical research."

The Neuro Bureau, a forum supporting open neuroscience, hosts its Brain-Art Competition "to bring attention to the more aesthetically-oriented aspects of our field, and to publicize and encourage creative developments taking place at the nexus of art and neuroimaging." See the 2011 winners in The Neuro Bureau gallery.

Many societies tie their competitions into annual education events. The Materials Research Society has been running the Science as Art contest twice a year; entries are accepted only from registrants of the respective spring or fall meetings. SLAS honorable mention winner Kunduru has entered this contest in the past. View 2011 Fall Meeting winners.

Some have themes. For example, SLAS Past President Michelle Palmer, Broad Institute, won a contest through the BroadMinded Blog for the best holiday-themed scientific imagery in 2010 with her image displaying a data set from a chemical screening experiment representing activity of compounds from the Broad's MLPCN library.

Many universities use art of science contests to further energize students at all levels to think beyond the science of their science. See 2011 winners at Princeton University, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, University of Bristol, California Institute of Technology and Northwestern University.

2013 JALA & JBS Art of Science Contest

With the popularity of the 2012 JALA & JBS Art of Science Contest, the SLAS journal leadership will repeat the competition for display and celebration at SLAS2013. "Keep the contest in mind throughout this year," Ho offers. "You just might have the winner in the works right now!"

Deadline for submissions will be Friday, August 31.

Contest rules and submission information will be announced via, SLAS Point-to-Point and the SLAS social networking sites on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

March 9, 2012