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NSF, AAAS Announced 2009 International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge Winners

“What is one of the most important issues for our planet, which needs collaboration of people from every area?” asked Sung Hoon Kang of Harvard University, discussing the concept of sustainability as reflected in his award-winning photograph. In the image, tiny plastic fingers, each with a diameter 1/500th of a human hair, cradle a tiny green sphere, bringing to mind cooperative efforts across the world to promote the sustainability of the planet.

This photograph and other winning entries in the 2009 International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge, sponsored by the journal Science, which is published by AAAS, the nonprofit international science society, and the National Science Foundation (NSF), captivate and engage the viewer by revealing the hidden meaning and intricate details of our world in visual form.

By making science aesthetically appealing, science becomes more accessible to people, said Hoon, who won first place in the Photography category with team members Boaz Pokroy and Joanna Aizenberg of Harvard University. “Public outreach has always been a weak side of science,” he added. “By adding art and metaphors to our research portfolio, we, as citizens, can send a clear message to the world: Science—at its core—is focused on the problems of societal importance. This will work better than detailed (and often incomprehensible) scientific debates.”

Science and NSF organized this worldwide competition to reward scientists for thinking outside the box and using visualization techniques to reveal the beauty and wonder of science,” said Monica M. Bradford, executive editor of the journal Science. “The contest winners communicate difficult scientific research in a way that the general public can understand. We appreciate their work.”


Photography—First Place
Save Our Earth, Let’s Go Green
Tiny plastic fibers, each with a diameter of 250 nm, spontaneously wrapped around a plastic ball when they were immersed in an evaporating liquid. First reported in Science (Pokroy et al., Science 2009), the finding demonstrates a new way of controlling the self-assembly of polymer hairs. The image was produced with a scanning electronic microscope and was digitally enhanced for color. | Image courtesy of Sung Hoon Kang, Boaz Pokroy, and Joanna Aizenberg, Harvard University

Currently in its seventh year, the international competition honors artists who use visual media to promote our understanding of scientific research. The criteria for judging the entries included visual impact, effective communication, freshness and originality.


Featured on the cover of the 19 February issue of the journal Science, “Branching Morphogenesis,” a first-place winning entry in the Illustrations category, the three-dimensional analog datascape depicts more than 75,000 color-coded, interconnected cable zip ties.

“Branching morphogenesis not only reveals the inherent beauty and complexity of cell-extracellular matrix interactions that occur during capillary formation within the lung, but it also aims to illustrate the underlying, formerly unseen, physical forces that drive this process during development and disease,” said Peter Lloyd Jones, who collaborated with Andrew Lucia, Annette Fierro, and Jenny E. Sabin from the University of Pennsylvania’s Sabin + Jones Lab Studio. “Another hope is that this work will inspire scientists and designers alike to begin to explore the rich possibilities that exist between the fields of design, computation and matrix biology, within which code and environment intersect.”

Another illustration entitled, “Jellyfish Burger,” which won an honorable mention, is a 3-dimensional digital composited image that suggests that “edible jellyfish are clear and ambiguous,” said Dave Beck, who collaborated with Jennifer Jacquet from Clarkson University. “So if we want to communicate the future of seafood, 3D modeling is a great tool because it can convey jellyfish to the viewer in a way that a real jellyfish cannot.”

“Follow the money: Human Mobility and Effective Communities” won first place in Non-Interactive Media. The original video was created by Christian Thiemann and Daniel Grady, two students at Northwestern University, and shows that dollar bills can be used to build a complete picture of how people move from place to place in the United States. “Accurate measurements and analysis of human mobility are very important for predicting the spread of many kinds of disease,” stated Grady. “One of our hopes for this work is that it will bring us closer to the real-time prediction of disease spread.

“The core of computational science might appear as a boring black-box: One feeds numbers into a computer, waits, and gets numbers back. Yet an intriguing visualization of the results can provoke curiosity in the algorithm that brought them about,” Grady added. “Visualizations of algorithms in turn are usually schematics or trivial toy examples to satisfy this curiosity. However, being able to observe the algorithm at work on the complex real data it is needed for may be as intriguing as the results’ visualization, thus provoking interest in the method for its own sake rather than for understanding the results.”

And, an educational computer animation video, “Inside the Brain: Unraveling the Mystery of Alzheimer’s Disease,” won an honorable mention in Non-Interactive Media and helps shed light on how complex, cellular events occur inside a brain afflicted with the disease. “The research is quite complex and difficult to communicate to lay audiences by words alone,” said Stacy Jannis, who produced the video. “We hope that by showing the ‘unseen details’ of the destruction wrought by the disease, we are effectively communicating a deeper scientific understanding to the public.”


A video featuring Peter Lloyd Jones and Ms. Jenny Sabin, who collaborated on the winning illustration, “Branching Morphogenesis.”

Other winning entries showcase a symbolic illustration of interest in modern geometry and quantum field theory concerning the history of a 2,000-year-old equation; an illustrative narrative that conveys the complexity of the brain and the nervous system; a movie that shows how the traits of identical twins diverge as they age; an entertaining interactive video and simulations that explore biological processes, the mechanisms of photosynthesis and respiration from a plant to a cell; the life of a microbe in the desert and how it has adapted to inhibit the formation of salt crystals; and an animation that gives insight to the new approach of the tsunami early warning system, among others.

The 2009 winning entries are included in the following five categories:


First Place:

Sung Hoon Kang; Harvard University
Save Our Earth. Let’s Go Green

Honorable Mentions (tie):

Michael P. Zach; University of Wisconsin—Stevens Point
Microbe vs. Mineral—A Life and Death Struggle in the Desert

Russell Taylor, Briana K. Whitaker, and Briana L. Carstens; University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Flower Power

Heiti Paves and Birger Ilau; Tallinn University of Technology


First Place (tie):

Richard Palais and Luc Benard, University of California at Irvine
Kuen’s Surface: A Meditation on Euclid, Lobachevsky, and Quantum Fields

Peter Lloyd Jones (Lead Scientist), Jenny E. Sabin (Lead Designer), Andrew Lucia and Annette Fierro; Sabin+Jones LabStudio, University of Pennsylvania
Branching Morphogenesis

Honorable Mentions (tie):

Dave Beck and Jennifer Jacquet; Clarkson University
Jellyfish Burger

Mario De Stefano, Antonia Auletta, and Carla Langella; The 2nd University of Naples
Back to the Future


Informational Graphics—First Place
Brain Development
“Brain Development” is an illustrative narrative of the basics of building a brain and nervous system. It underscores the complexity of the brain, and highlights both genetic and environmental influences on brain development and the essential role of developmental plasticity in an engaging, fanciful way that remains true to published research. | Image courtesy of Dwayne Godwin and Jorge Cham, Wake Forest University School of Medicine



First Place:

Dwayne Godwin and Jorge Cham; Wake Forest University School of Medicine
Brain Development

Honorable Mention:

Erin Olson, Daphne Orlando, Gregg Hickey, Julia Tremaine, Martin Ramsden, Tim Manning; R&D Systems, Inc.
Regulation of the Cell Cycle & DNA Damage-Induced Checkpoint Activation


First Place:

Jeremy Friedberg and Andrea Bielecki; Spongelab Interactive
Genomics Digital Lab: Cell Biology


First Place (tie):

Harmony Starr and Molly Malone; University of Utah Genetic Science Learning Center
The Epigenetics of Identical Twins

Daniel Grady, Christian Thiemann, and Dirk Brockmann; Northwestern University
Follow the Money: Human Mobility and Effective Communities


Interactive Media—First Place
Genomics Digital Lab: Cell Biology
Delve into the world of cells, through a series of innovative games, animations and simulations, connecting several areas of biology. Users ‘play the biology,’ controlling the biochemical systems that contribute to the energy cycling process within a cell. Explore mechanisms such as photosynthesis and respiration through a uniquely detailed and unparalleled cellular experience, in an engaging and relevant manner. | Image courtesy of Jeremy Friedberg and Andrea Bielecki, Spongelab Interactive

Nils Sparwasser, Gregor Hochleiter, Christian Gredel, Hartmut Friedl, Thorsten Andresen; German Aerospace Center (DLR)
Decision Support System for Tsunami Early Warning


Stacy Jannis, William Dempsey, Rebekah Fredenburg, Marcelle Morrison-Bogorad, Creighton Phelps, and Stephen Snyder; Jannis Productions
Inside the Brain: Unraveling the Mystery of Alzheimer’s Disease


See the International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge winners at Science online (with registration) and at the National Science Foundation Web site

View a slide show of the winners, prepared by the staff of Science.

See a video featuring Peter Lloyd Jones and Ms. Jenny Sabin, who collaborated on the winning illustration, “Branching Morphogenesis.”

Listen to Robert Frederick’s Science Podcast interview.

Learn more about the 2009 International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge.


Natasha D. Pinol

Senior Communications Officer