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Science: 2011 International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge Winners Announced

A colorful computer illustration that depicts the emergence of structure in the universe, spanning 240 million light years of galactic growth, is among the winners of the 2011 International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge, sponsored by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the journal Science.

“The Cosmic Web” explores luminous galaxies and traces invisible dark matter that shapes a vast network of voids, walls, filaments, and clusters, explained cosmologist Miguel Angel Aragon-Calvo of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. The colorful arresting visual, winner of the award’s Informational Posters & Graphics category, is featured on the cover of the 3 February issue of Science.

“The talent of these award winners is remarkable,” said Monica M. Bradford, executive editor of Science. “These winners communicate science in a manner that not only captures your attention but in many instances strives to look at different ways to solve scientific problems through their varied art forms.”

The international competition, currently in its ninth year, honors recipients who use visual media to promote understanding of scientific research. The criteria for judging this year’s 212 entries from 33 countries included visual impact, effective communication, freshness, and originality.

The NSF made significant enhancements to the 2011 Challenge, allowing participants to submit their entries online and judges to view material electronically. The competition also allows the public to select their favorite image as a People’s Choice award and share their favorite entries via the social media sites Facebook and Twitter.

The annual challenge showcases spectacular photographs, illustrations, graphics, videos, and interactive games that engage viewers by conveying the complex substance of science through arts. Some highlights include:

Solve the Protein Puzzle: A multiplayer online computer game puzzle called “Foldit” allows users to bend and fold amino acids into realistic proteins. The game, developed by Seth Cooper of the University of Washington, Seattle and his team, could give insight into new ways to fight against diseases like influenza and AIDS.

“We strove to make the visualizations in folding both fun to look at and informative about where there are problems with the protein that players might be able to fix,” said Cooper, winner in the Interactive Games category. “We tried to make the visualizations clear and approachable, so the game can be played by people who don’t have a scientific background.”

View a Cell in 3D: The movie “Rapid Visual Inventory & Comparison of Complex 3D Structures” depicts a novel, three-dimensional model view of a whole cell in minute detail and helps biologists better explain complex visual data for a general audience. The video was the judges’ winner as well as the People’s Choice in the video category.

“Morphing the cell from the complicated native model to the simplified version and back gets general audiences excited about the subject matter and reminds even expert audiences of the complex interplay of randomness and specific interaction that enables life to exist,” said winning animator Graham T. Johnson, who produced the movie at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, California, and now works at the University of California, San Francisco.

See the Beauty of a Mouse’s Eye: The first-place photograph, “Metabolomic Eye,” is a metabolic snapshot of the diversity of cells in a mouse eye retina, derived from a technique called computational molecular phenotyping. Neuroscientist Bryan William Jones of the University of Utah’s Moran Eye Center in Salt Lake City said the image shows a unique view of normal tissue functioning and reveals complex metabolic signals while preserving the anatomical context of a tissue.

Build a Human Body: “Build-a-Body is a great way to virtually learn about human anatomy,” designer Jeremy Friedberg of Spongelab Interactive said of his educational science game, which won an honorable mention in the Interactive Games category. It allows users to use drag-and-drop tools to learn about organs of the human body. “Our free, open platform fosters a global science community by stitching together educational content, teaching tools, and powerful data surrounding class and student performance,” Friedberg said.

Zoom into Human Tissue: Another interactive science game, “In Powers of Minus Ten,” allows players to view the human hand and look at individual cells. The game, which also won an honorable mention, was developed by Laura Lynn of Green-Eye Visualization. She originally conceived it as an iPad app with the power to zoom into the human body and magnify tissue at the atomic level.

Control Nanotubes in 3D: A three-dimensional illustration that depicts a laser-based technique that controls the length, diameter, and characteristics of carbon nanotubes with precision received an honorable mention in the illustration category. Graphic artist Joel Brehm of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln portrayed the work of his colleague Yongfeng Lu, an electrical engineering professor, who developed the laser-based production techniques.

“This illustration helps visualize the resulting variable diameter nanotubes, which could be customized for specific uses to improve electrical devices and reduce their energy consumption,” said Brehm.

Magnify a Cucumber’s Skin: A colorful polarizing microscope photograph of closely arranged, hair-like structures called trichomes on the outer skin of a cucumber was magnified 800 times by Dr. Robert Belliveau, a pathologist from Las Vegas, Nevada. The image captures the sharp end points of the trichomes, which are 40 times thinner than a sewing needle and perforate the mouthparts of herbivores. The globular base contains toxic cucurbitacins, the most bitter substances known, which can be detected by humans when diluted to one part in a billion.

Other winning entries include a cutting-edge colored scanning electron micrograph of two-dimensional sheets of titanium carbide, or MXene, that reveals the beauty of the nanoworld; a dramatic illustration, using three-dimensional software, that shows tumor death-cell receptors on breast cancer cell surfaces and antibodies developed to fight the cells; an illustration of domain coloring, a modern color plot technique, to visualize different shades of complex math functions; a People’s Choice-winning three-dimensional visualization of a cell undergoing division, shown with the use of a special new fluorescent protein called MiniSOG that looks at the fine details of a cell’s chromosomes; and an eye-catching three-dimensional view of the Ebola virus’ supramolecular structure.

The winning entries are featured in the 3 February issue of Science (available to the public without registration), and in an interactive slideshow produced by the AAAS Office of Public Programs.

The 2011 winning entries are included in five categories:


First Place:

Bryan William Jones

University of Utah, Moran Eye Center

Metabolomic Eye

Honorable Mention:

Robert Rock Belliveau

Las Vegas, Nevada

Microscopic Image of Trichomes on the Skin of an Immature Cucumber

People’s Choice:

Babak Anasori, Michael Naguib, Yury Gogotsi, and Michel W. Barsoum

Drexel University

The Cliff of the Two-Dimensional World


Honorable Mentions (3-way tie):

Emiko Paul and Quade Paul (Echo Medical Media); Ron Gamble (UAB Insight)

Tumor Death-Cell Receptors on Breast Cancer Cell

Joel Brehm

University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Office of Research & Economic Development

Variable-Diameter Carbon Nanotubes

Konstantin Poelke and Konrad Polthier

Free University Berlin

Exploring Complex Functions using Domain Coloring

People’s Choice:

Andrew Noske and Thomas Deerinck (National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research, University of California, San Diego) and Horng Ou and Clodagh O’Shea (Salk Institute)

Separation of a Cell


First Place:

Miguel Angel Aragon-Calvo (Johns Hopkins University), Julieta Aguilera and Mark SubbaRao (Adler Planetarium)

The Cosmic Web

Honorable Mention:

Ivan Konstantinov, Yury Stefanov, Alexander Kovalevsky, and Anastasya Bakulina, Visual Science

The Ebola Virus

People’s Choice:

Fabian de Kok-Mercado, Victoria Wahl-Jensen, and Laura Bollinger, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases IRF

Transmission Electron Microscopy: Structure, Function & 3D Reconstruction


First Place:

Seth Cooper, David Baker, Zoran Popovic, Firas Khatib, Jeff Flatten, Kefan Xu, Dun-Yu Hsiao, and Riley Adams

Center for Game Science at the University of Washington


Honorable Mentions (3-way tie):

W. Schneller, P.J. Campbell, M. Stenerson, D. Bassham, and E.S. Wurtele

Iowa State University

Meta!Blast 3D Interactive Application for Cell and Metabolic Biology. Level 1: The Cell

Jeremy Friedberg, Nicole Husain, Ian Wood, Genevieve Brydson, Wensi Sheng, Lorraine Trecroce, Kariane St-Denis, David Rowe, Ruby Pajares, Arij Al Chawaf, Shaun Rana, and Nancy Reilly

Spongelab Interactive


Laura Lynn Gonzalez

Green-Eye Visualization

Powers of Minus Ten

People’s Choice:

Muralitharan Vengadasalam, Ganesh Venkat, Vignesh Palanimuthu, Fabian Herrera, and Ashok Maharaja

Tata Consultancy Services

Velu the Welder


First Place & People’s Choice:

Graham T. Johnson (The Scripps Research Institute, and, Andrew Noske (National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research), and Bradley Marsh (Institute for Molecular Bioscience, University of Queensland)

Rapid Visual Inventory & Comparison of Complex 3D Structures

Honorable Mentions (2-way tie):

Christopher E. Wilmer, Omar K. Farha, and Patrick E. Fuller

Northwestern University

High-Density Energy Storage Using Self-Assembled Materials

Steven Haddock and Susan Von Thun

Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute &

There’s No Such Thing as a Jellyfish


Read more about the winners of the 2011 Visualization Challenge (free to the public without registration).

Watch an interactive slideshow of the 2011 winning entries.

Listen to a Science Podcast about the 2011 winners.

Read about the 2011 winners in Spanish and French.


Natasha D. Pinol

Senior Communications Officer