Visualizing Science 2019: Revealing Hidden Splendor in Research

October 24, 2019 • by Staff Writer

Each year the College of Natural Sciences invites its faculty, staff and students to submit the most stunning and inspiring images from their scholarly research for our Visualizing Science competition. We ask for images that not only inform and educate, but also celebrate the beauty inherent within scientific discovery.

Finding the splendor and majesty hidden within the world is a time-honored tradition in the sciences. Rosalind Franklin used X-ray crystallography to reveal the elegant structures of viruses and DNA. NASA’s New Horizons mission, led by alumnus Alan Stern, gave us unprecedented views of the surface of Pluto and its satellites. The University of Texas at Austin’s own Insects Unlocked project creates stunning, intimate portraits of the tiny, unassuming creatures that surround us every day.

This year’s Visualizing Science submissions show how even unpleasant source material — such as pollution or cancer — can be transformed through the lens of science into something that echoes art.

The finalists, six of the most striking submissions from our scientific community, were chosen based on their beauty and scientific merit by a panel of judges that included both on-campus and off-campus experts in communications, art and science, who also assessed response from the community weighing in on submissions on the college Facebook page. A new award this year, the Interdisciplinary Team Award, honors an image created by a team spanning different disciplines.

The College unveiled this year’s winning images at Art in Science, a Natural Sciences Week event put on by our Natural Sciences Council and the college’s communications and events office [Click here to see photos from the Art in Science event]. All six images will be displayed on campus in the UT Tower and the Kuehne Physics Mathematics Astronomy Library, as well as on digital screens throughout the College’s campus buildings.

We proudly present the winners of the 2019 Visualizing Science competition:

First Place

First Place

This image shows a network of gut bacteria of tadpoles from nine ponds in East Texas. Each color is a pond, and each dot is a different species of bacteria. Lines connecting dots mean that the same bacterial species was shared between tadpoles from different ponds. This is one of the results from research showing that the environment the host comes from is more important in determining its microbiome than the species of the host itself. If the environment did not matter, we would not see the clusters that appear here. — Decio T. CorreaEcology, Evolution and Behavior Graduate Student

“I really love this image, showing a lot of information in an interesting and informative way.”
— Judge Michael Mrak, design director at Scientific American

Second Place and Audience Choice

Second Place

Crystallinity controls the overall performance of semiconductors used in electronic devices. Calla McCulley, a graduate student in chemistry, varies the conditions used to deposit semiconducting materials, known as perovskites, to optimize and pre-determine the crystallinity of the thin film, and thus the electrical and optical performance in devices. The left side of this image depicts a crystalline film with grain boundaries separating different ordered crystalline domains and the right side depicts an amorphous film with needle-shaped crystals. Both types of crystalline structures are beneficial for different electrical device types, but the formation and characterization of these films is McCulley’s area of focus. She acquired this optical image of a methylammonium lead iodide thin film, deposited on a zirconium dioxide substrate, in the Microelectronics Research Center at the J.J. Pickle Research Campus under the guidance of Dr. Ananth Dodabalapur. — Calla McCulley, Chemistry Graduate Student

“This image feels like it could be mistaken for a mosaic floor in an ancient Roman Temple. The color and pattern grabs you and slowly, slowly pulls you in. The contrasting sections and imperfect rhythm is glorious.”
— Judge Laurie Frick, a local artist

Third Place

Third Place

Wild-caught bumblebees have a core set of bacteria within their digestive tract that is passed between adult bees and helps protect against insecticides and pathogens. Postdoctoral researcher Tobin Hammer lab-reared common eastern bumblebees in a “germ-free” environment, making their guts void of bacteria. Lexie Martin performed a technique known as fluorescence in situ hybridization on one of these “germ-free” bumblebees in order to assess the contents of its gut. Within the image, one can see a cross-section of the bumblebee’s digestive tract filled with spiked freshly-eaten pollen granules and smooth discs of partially digested pollen granules. Additionally, the blue dots along the gut wall are nuclei of the gut cells. — Lexie Martin, Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior Undergraduate Student

“I am often drawn to the images of natural, living things. ...The image of the pollen grains inside the gut is beautiful.”
— Judge Shelley Payne, professor in the Department of Molecular Biosciences

Honorable Mentions

Honorable Mention

Autofluorescence microscopy can be used to visualize microscopic structures within a thin tissue section, without staining or sample modification, by exciting fluorescent chemical compounds that already exist within the tissue. Three different fluorescence filters, which show up as different colors, highlight structures of interest in a thyroid cancer tissue sample. The Eberlin lab is incorporating this technique into their molecular imaging workflow to develop a multimodal tool for improved thyroid cancer diagnosis. This image was acquired in the Microscopy and Imaging Facility at UT Austin. — Rachel DeHoog, Chemistry Graduate Student

“Not only does this look like something that could have been produced by Jackson Pollock, it speaks to important research that is changing lives.”

Honorable Mention

An artistic view of tiny plastic pellets called nurdles that are washing up on beaches all over the Gulf of Mexico and the world. The University of Texas Marine Science Institute’s Mission-Aransas Reserve initiated Nurdle Patrol, a major citizen science project where hundreds of volunteers use their day at the beach, in part, to collect samples of nurdles and report back the data. In identifying concentrations of plastic pellets and reporting their prevalence, people in the Nurdle Patrol are helping scientists gather information that will help regulatory agencies and researchers alike. — Jace Tunnell, Director, Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve

“A sobering reminder of the damage we are inflicting on our planet in the Anthropocene.”

Interdisciplinary Team Award

Interdisciplinary Team Award

This team developed a computer-aided design tool to study basket weaving. The software they developed turns arbitrary 3D models into assembly instructions that can be followed to fabricate any number of shapes out of woven elastic ribbons. The same mathematics that mapmakers use to draw a flat representation of our curved planet on paper comes in handy in this computational challenge. First, imagine weaving a form, any form, as a differential geometry problem; then, develop a novel numerical method to find good solutions on arbitrary surfaces. The software could have applications in many areas, from novel high-performance materials that rely on engineering nanoscale structures, to precise biomedical devices like a personalized cardiovascular stent. — Joshua VekhterComputer Science Graduate Student; Jiacheng Zhuo, Computer Science Graduate Student; Luisa Gil Fandino, Assistant Professor of Instruction, Division of Textiles and Apparel; Dr. Qixing Huang, Assistant Professor, Department of Computer Science; and Dr. Etienne Vouga, Assistant Professor, Department of Computer Science

“I’m intrigued by the possible applications for this technology in creating assembly instructions for custom three-dimensional objects.”


A man in a Texas Robotics t-shirt speaks at a mic, gesturing with his hands as robots and people interact in the background.

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