2011 visualization challenge – Informational Posters & Graphics

As every year Science Magazine and the National Science Foundation present the winners of the International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge.

1°place: the cosmic web ( for see the hi-res pdf )

A spider’s web catches flies. But the cosmic web depicted in the winning poster snares galaxies. Cosmologist Miguel Angel Aragon-Calvo of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and colleagues illustrate how an invisible network of matter creates space’s familiar features: “This poster is [intended] to show the relationship between galaxies and the environment where they live,” he says.

Galaxies don’t grow out of nothing, Aragon-Calvo notes. Instead, their formation is decided by underlying but invisible accumulations of dark matter. Scientists suspect that this substance, which is still theoretical and remains impossible to observe, gives rise to most of the gravity in the universe. That gravity becomes the glue that holds galaxies together. So, in regions where dark matter is dense, galaxies begin to form, often grouping together in clusters or long walls.

In their poster, which from top to bottom represents about 240 million light-years, Aragon-Calvo and colleagues simulate that process. They explore the same patch of space from five different vantage points, traveling from the invisible to the visible. As the universe expands following the big bang, strings of dark matter condense along the edges of voids nearly tens of millions of light-years wide. These mostly empty regions of space can be seen at the far left of the poster (dark orange) bordered by bright filaments rich in matter. In the middle, weeping willow–like arcs follow the flow of matter over time. The lines converge at the present day, shown in red, and eventually spawn bright galaxies at the same points (far right). Depicting the entire “history of matter” in one poster is an ambitious task, but Aragon-Calvo hopes that viewers will come away with one message: “The universe has a rich structure.” Just like a spider web.

This brightly colored illustration with accompanying text is “aesthetically beautiful,” says challenge judge Corinne Sandone. And “I think it’s fabulous that we can see some of the structure and to see it visualized as you move further and further into space.”


Not all good science visualizations highlight the beauty of the natural world. Take this illustration by Ivan Konstantinov and colleagues at the Russia-based group Visual Science. His team drew on existing scientific information to depict the 3D structure of the Ebola virus, responsible for fatal outbreaks of hemorrhagic fever throughout much of Africa.

This virus, only 1400 nanometers in length, is no simple pathogen, Konstantinov says. His group previously patched together a similar 3D model of HIV. But Ebola is nearly 10 times larger, containing roughly 3 million lipids and protein molecules. The poster, too, provides a good look at how Ebola turns dangerous. Proteins coded by the virus’s own genome are shown here in maroon. They’re the pathogen’s Velcro, clinging to the surface of target cells and giving the virus access to their interior. Anyone perusing this poster “can clearly understand that the Ebola virion is a very complex supramolecular structure, with various polypeptides, lipids, and RNA genome included,” Konstantinov says. Not exactly the stuff of an Ansel Adams photograph, but an eye-catching sight nevertheless.

PEOPLE’S CHOICE: Transmission Electron Microscopy: Structure, Function & 3D Reconstruction

For anyone who’s ever wanted to take apart a microscope to see how it works, this is the poster for you. Here, scientists at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Integrated Research Facility (IRF) in Frederick, Maryland, dismantle a transmission electron microscope (TEM) piece by piece—all without damaging expensive lab equipment. These instruments bombard tiny objects such as viruses or proteins with beams of electrons, capturing images too small for conventional light microscopes.

In their dissection, Fabian de Kok-Mercado and colleagues at IRF delve into deeper and deeper detail, moving from left to right. The researchers first display a TEM in its entirety. Then they follow the visualization tool down to its cryo-device (at right), which keeps organic samples cool for maximum clarity. In between, viewers themselves can track the formation of an electron beam from start to finish. It begins at the electron gun that creates the free particles using an electric current, then continues through a handful of lenses that condense, focus, and magnify the output. It’s the ideal schematic for technology junkies who like to think small.

2011 visualization challenge – illustration

As every year Science Magazine and the National Science Foundation present the winners of the International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge.

illustration category

1°place: Tumor Death-Cell Receptors on Breast Cancer Cell

Cancer cells get the monster movie treatment. If Emiko Paul of Echo Medical Media’s illustration of breast cancer cells looks like something out of an H. P. Lovecraft short story, it’s no accident. “We wanted to show something that was dramatic and very active,” Paul says.

This image, modeled using 3D software then painted in Adobe Photoshop, depicts the war on cancer in a manner that makes clear who the bad guys are. Paul drew on microscopic images of breast cancer cells—seen here looking like creatures with long tentacles—for inspiration. But her illustration also depicts a possible weapon against these malignant tissues: an antibody developed by researchers at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, called TRA-8 (the green, globular structures). This molecule activates a protein on the surface of many cancer cells, which then triggers a chain of events that kills off those cells, much like a self-destruct switch. TRA-8, whose efficacy researchers are currently exploring, could be the garlic to cancer’s vampire.

2°place: Variable-Diameter Carbon Nanotubes

Nanostructures, as the name implies, are much too small to see. But using 3D modeling techniques and some guesswork, graphic artist Joel Brehm renders a handful of these ultrathin structures visible to the naked eye. Brehm’s illustration focuses on the work of his colleague, Yongfen Lu, an engineer at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Lu and colleagues employ lasers to develop new methods for crafting thin tubes made from carbon. But not just any tubes. His team’s method precisely varies the diameter and properties of these structures. The resulting tubes, seen here, widen, narrow, or even bulge out like pears along their length. These designs could improve transistors and sensors in a range of electronics, the team says.

The tricky part, Brehm says, was making the nanotubes look small even though they’d been blown up to poster size. To do that, he added a granular texture to the honeycombed stalks and also brightened their edges. Those small touches, he says, made the tubes look more like objects viewed through an electron microscope.

3°place: Exploring Complex Functions Using Domain Coloring

Mathematicians discover their hippie sides. Forgoing long strings of digits and variables, researchers at the Free University of Berlin have taken a tie-dye approach to visualizing math equations. This illustration represents one example of a complex function. Such functions are mathematical relationships that incorporate both real numbers and what experts call imaginary numbers, such as the square root of −1.

Unlike familiar sine waves or logarithmic curves, complex functions are four-dimensional, combining both inputs and outputs in two dimensions. To visualize these heady equations, Konstantin Poelke and his Ph.D. supervisor Konrad Polthier turned to and improved a technique called domain coloring. They assigned each complex number in their equation to a spot on a color wheel. The further numbers get from zero, the brighter they are (white regions, for instance, represent mathematical “singularities” that approach infinity). The result is like a topographic map, but it packs two dimensions of information (hue and brightness) into each point instead of the single dimension of altitude.

Such functions may fly right over the heads of many nonmath enthusiasts, Poelke says. But he hopes casual viewers will understand the basics of the relationships between the complex numbers shown here just by looking at the arrangement of the psychedelic shades.

4°place: Separation of a Cell (which is the people’s choice)

From films like Avatar to hand-held video games, 3D is all the rage. Textbook graphics are not catching on. In this illustration, Andrew Noske of the National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research at the University of California, San Diego, and colleagues create a visualization of mitosis that hops off the page.

The new and tactile view of a cell undergoing division comes thanks to a specialized protein called MiniSOG. This molecule, which Noske’s team shows zipping toward the reader, is fluorescent and stands out crisply under an electron microscope. With some tweaking, it also binds tightly to a second protein closely associated with DNA. That gives scientists the ability to target and view in detail chromosomes as they peel apart during mitosis. The result is a far cry from the standard, flat images popular in biology textbooks, the team writes. And unlike the 3D glasses that accompany screenings of sci-fi films, this new visualization approach may be more than a gimmick, giving students a deeper look at a familiar phenomenon.

2011 visualization challange – photography

As every year Science Magazine and the National Science Foundation present the winners of the International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge.


1° place: Metabolomic Eye

Eyeballs—now in Technicolor. This photo graph, taken by neuroscientist Bryan Jones of the University of Utah’s Moran Eye Center (MEC) in Salt Lake City, may look like a piece of candy. But it’s actually a metabolic look at the wide diversity of cells in the mouse eye—in all, 70 different types of cells, from muscles to retina, each colored a unique shade.

To map out the tissues in this mouse’s eye, Jones turned to a technique called computational molecular phenotyping (CMP). This approach, pioneered by Robert Marc, also at MEC, takes advantage of the unique array of molecules in all cells in a tissue. “Within a cell type, there is a very narrowly regulated fingerprint that defines who that cell is and what that cell does,” Jones says. In this case, he probed the relative concentrations of several common organic molecules.

Using a tool that cuts into biological material on the microscopic scale, Jones shaved into the eye, creating serial 120-nanometer-thick slices, thinner than the wavelength of light—much like licking a gobstopper, he says. Jones then stained those layers with specialized antibodies that bind to three molecules: taurine, glutamine, and glutamate, which he assigned to red, green, and blue color channels on a computer. The unique distributions of these molecules can be seen here in rainbow color. Muscle cells, located at the left edge of the image, look pale yellow, whereas scleral tissue, surrounding the entire orb, shows up green in this image.

In order to study the molecular fingerprints of specific tissues, scientists previously had to grind up entire organs and analyze the cells all together. That turned what might be a metabolically diverse organ into a homogenous mess, Jones says. But CMP highlights a tissue’s complexity. “There’s incredible diversity in a cell population normally thought to be homogenous.” And mammal eyes aren’t even the most complex retinas out there, he adds. Goldfish eyes, for instance, contain more than 200 separate cell types.

The photograph is certainly eye-catching, says challenge judge Alisa Zapp Machalek. “It was just what we were looking for,” she says. “It was the perfect balance between a beautiful picture that tingles the eyeballs and something that is incredibly informative.”

2° place: Microscopic Image of Trichomes on the Skin of an Immature Cucumber

No, this photograph doesn’t depict alien slugs stripped from a science-fiction film—just the surface of a young cucumber. It’s a new perspective on an old vegetable. To take this close-up, vibrant shot, photographer Robert Belliveau employed a polarizing microscope. Unlike normal light microscopes, which use unpolarized light, these zooming tools adopt plane-polarized light and record the refraction of light as it passes through small objects to produce a sharp, colorful image.

The structures shown here at 800× magnification are trichomes. They coat the surface of still-growing cucumbers and look, to the naked eye, like a thin film of hair. That fuzziness, however, belies the structures’ nasty streak. The tips of trichomes taper to a point that can pierce the mouths of predators, and their bulbous bases are filled with bitter-tasting and toxic molecules called cucurbitacins. It’s a dangerous and strange landscape that humans normally don’t get to see, says Belliveau, who has also turned his microscope on tomatoes and many other edible plants. “The microscopic world of plants, especially fruits and vegetables, is such an exotic world,” he says. “It’s actually otherworldly.”

3° place: The Cliff of the Two-Dimensional World

This landscape, which looks like a red-rock bluff straight out of Utah, isn’t a geologic feature. Instead, it’s a nanostructured material made from ultrathin layers of titanium-based compounds and seen under an electron microscope.

To construct the small outcropping, Babak Anasori and colleagues at Drexel University in Philadelphia used a technique called exfoliation. They placed Ti3AlC2 powders in a solution of hydrofluoric acid and stripped away the aluminum atoms. What remained were stacked layers of Ti3C2, seen here in false color, resembling stratigraphic mineral layers. These exfoliated layers, which the team dubbed MXenes, are so thin they are two-dimensional. In other words, each strip is only five atomic layers thick. The team is the first to render such materials in 2D. The MXenes could be used in energy storage devices, sensors, solar cells, and other applications, the team writes. And they could give the majesty of Arches National Park in Utah some nanoscale competition.