Visualizing Science 2022: Illuminating the Intrinsic Beauty in Academic Research

September 23, 2022 • by Steven E. Franklin

The winners of our most recent Visualizing Science contest include an image related to “smart” material research, simulations of a meeting between a neutron star and a black hole and the connection between two wildly different areas of mathematics.

This past spring, the College of Natural Sciences invited our University of Texas at Austin faculty, staff and students to send in the top images from their research for our Visualizing Science competition. The images they produced nourish both the mind and the soul, offering not only food for thought but a feast for the eyes as well.


The use of visual aids is a common practice in scientific discovery, from data visualizations to biological sketches to computer simulations. The astonishing photos produced by NASA's James Webb Space Telescope are a prime example of the power of scientific imagery. Another recent example comes from physicists at UT Austin and MIT, who used advanced spectroscopic tools to capture the first-ever images of a hidden quantum phase in a 2D crystal. And in 2020, the lab of UT scientist Jason McLellan created the first 3D atomic scale map of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, a component that was vital for creating the first COVID-19 vaccines.


Often, these visual creations contain an intrinsic beauty entirely independent of their scientific merit. The submitters for this year's Visualizing Science contest strived to achieve that moment where science and art fuse into something greater than the sum of its parts.


This year, eight of the most outstanding submissions from our scientific community were chosen as finalists, from which one submission took the #1 prize. The top pick won accolades from a team of seasoned editors who have been involved with the contest over the years and also was the most popular image among our community members weighing in on submissions on the college Facebook page. "Editors' Choice" and "People's Choice" category winners are among the remaining finalists singled out for prizes this year.


The winning submissions on this page can also be experienced in our Visualizing Science Showcase, a 3D virtual gallery exhibition featuring not only this year's winners, but finalists from previous years—some even include expanded audio descriptions by the image creators. Take a stroll through the virtual gallery at the bottom of this page.


Presenting the winners of the 2022 Visualizing Science competition:

2022 Editors’ Choice and People’s Choice Winner

Winning Image

A scientific illustration in micron pen and watercolor of a Molly miller blenny (Scartella cristata) surrounded by Dictyota sp. and Caulerpa racemosa algae. These cosmopolitan little fish are found along the Texas coast and range from the Atlantic to Pacific Oceans. Ph.D. student Hannah Rempel and Assistant Professor Jordan Casey use cutting-edge molecular tools like DNA metabarcoding to study the diets of this small, abundant fish. The techniques the researchers use with this species may lead to better understanding of the diets of other omnivorous fishes that also consume microscopic prey and play a critical role in marine food webs. 

— Hannah Rempel, Marine Science Graduate Program

Additional Visualizing Science 2022 Winners

stimuli-responsive "smart" material

Creating stimuli-responsive "smart" materials that change color or shape due to environmental stimuli, like temperature or pressure, could be useful for a range of applications, from medical devices to information storage. Because the underlying molecular movements behind these changes are not well studied, chemistry graduate student Qifan Xiao examines the microscopic changes in these materials to understand the molecular actions that lead to the shape or color change.

Shown here is an optical image of dialkoxynaphthalene crystals taken at the Texas Materials Institute. The swirls come from molecular interactions and arrangements within each crystal. By monitoring the transformation of the swirls before and after heating, researchers can develop a molecular understanding of the entire shape-changing process.

— Qifan Xiao, Chemistry Graduate Program 

Newly settled coral polyps

To better understand a critical species in global decline at a critical stage of its developmental life cycle, researchers photographed one-month-old great star coral polyps (Montastraea cavernosa), about one millimeter in size, under blue light to show fluorescence. The green fluorescence is due to proteins produced by the coral, while the red fluorescence proteins are produced by the symbiotic algae living inside of the coral tissues.

Graduate student Daisy Flores took this image in the field through a microscope while working in Curacao at the Caribbean Research and Management of Biodiversity (CARMABI) Research Station. There she observed spawning, collected gametes and reared larvae of eight spawning coral species. Newly settled coral polyps are very small, even at one month old they are barely as large as your credit card is thick.

— Daisy Flores, Ecology, Evolution and Behavior Graduate Program

Stomata comparison

Stomata are a type of cellular valve found on the surface of plants. Because they allow gases like carbon dioxide and oxygen to flow in and out of plants, they are arguably some of the most important cellular structures on Earth. Under a microscope, stomata resemble tiny mouths, opening and closing as a plant regulates gases and water in its tissue. UT Austin scientists like graduate student Hye Min Seo have uncovered the series of developmental steps that are necessary for a plant to develop its stomata; the left image captures what happens when the plant triggers the process leading to mature stomata. One step involves a protein nicknamed MUTE, which is shown in yellow. When plants lack proper communication between transcriptional factors and signaling pathways in the cell, immature stomatal cells (like those on the right) can result.

— Hye Min Seo, Cell and Molecular Biology Graduate Program

neutron-star black-hole merger visualization

Neutron stars and black holes are the densest objects known to exist, and when they merge, we can witness one of the most extreme events in the universe. In 2021, NSF's Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) discovered the first neutron-star black-hole merger by detecting the gravitational waves they emitted. Detecting these events requires predicting how the signals should look. By using supercomputers to solve Einstein's Theory of General Relativity, scientists can simulate these mergers. This image visualizes one such simulation performed by Dr. Bhavesh Khamesra, demonstrating how a neutron star can be ripped apart by a black hole, as the tidal forces overpower the star's internal gravity. 

— Dr. Deborah Ferguson, Center for Gravitational Physics

a triangular tiling of the hyperbolic plane

This image illustrates a connection between two wildly different areas of mathematics: the geometry of curved spaces (a.k.a. non-Euclidean geometry), and the theory of algorithms and computation. The picture shows a triangular tiling of the hyperbolic plane, an example of a space with negative curvature. The symmetries of the tiling can be described by a finite-state automaton, an abstract "machine" which gives a procedure for reaching any triangle by following a simple set of rules. The colored circles show the 14 different states of this machine as it runs through all of the triangles, giving a tree of paths to different points in the space. 

— Theodore Weisman, Mathematics Graduate Program

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Saturation Fascination

In an image its submitter calls "Saturation Fascination," research scientist Crystal Wilson highlights work on metastatic cancer and ways to fight it. Mouse models used to test genetic metabolic vulnerabilities in cancer tumors helped reveal that ATM and Keap1 in tumors were targetable via the CRISPR gene-editing tool. While imaging the mice, Wilson accidentally saturated the image, later remarking: "It very much spoke to me. Science is hard and you don't always get the data you want, but sometimes the mistakes are just as beautiful and valuable."

— Crystal Wilson, Department of Molecular Biosciences

Science is Me

How do you create scientists? Allow children to explore, observe, question and experiment with the world around them, says Jennifer Austin, associate professor of instruction, whose mosaic, "Science is Me," features her daughter Zoe Austin at multiple sites of science inspiration. These include the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Austin Nature and Science Center, Blue Hole, Violet Crown, UT's Physics, Math and Astronomy building, the UT Turtle Pond, various campus spots linked to UT Girl Day, Westcave Preserve, Muleshoe Bend, the Blanton Museum, Bracken Cave, South Padre Island, the Science Mill, Pedernales Falls State Park, Reelfoot Lake State Park, after getting her first COVID-19 vaccine, Girl Scout Camp Texlake, Girl Scout Camp Hazlewood, Zooming with 'Marie Curie,' Colorado, the family's home and the family's yard. The mosaic was created using Mosaically with the target image being a DNA knot from Zoe's mother's dissertation "DNA Knotting: Occurrences, Consequences, & Resolution." 

— Dr. Jennifer Austin, Department of Mathematics

Visualizing Science Showcase

Entrance to our Visualizing Science Showcase