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The Vizzies


2009 Winners

Captions from Michael Torrice, Science 327: 945-955 (2010). Full story in Science magazine.


First Place

Save Our Earth. Let's Go Green
Sung Hoon Kang, Joanna Aizenberg and Boaz Pokroy; Harvard University

Hair-like fibers stretch to latch onto a green sphere. Alone each fiber is powerless, but together they grip and support the orb, embodying cooperation at a microscopic scale. This electron microscope photograph catches self-assembling polymers in action, but it could also represent people's cooperative efforts to save the Earth, says materials scientist Joanna Aizenberg of Harvard University. "Each hair represents a person or an organization," she says. "It shows our collaborative effort to hold up the planet and keep it running."

Aizenberg and her colleagues design self-assembling polymers in hopes of creating energy-efficient materials. They have snapped many similar photos of micrometer-scale cooperation. This image shows hair-like fibers of epoxy resin assembling around a polystyrene sphere, which is about two micrometers in diameter.

Honorable Mention

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

Although the bursts of rainbow colors in this photograph are mesmerizing, microbes fight for their lives in the background. Chemist Michael P. Zach of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, snapped this image of a salt sample he collected in a hot, arid valley near Death Valley National Park in California. He crushed the salt, placed it under a microscope slide and added a drop of water. Suddenly a slew of microbes came to life as the salt crystals dissolved. Then when the water started evaporating, he took a picture. The colors come from light passing through the growing crystals, which act like prisms. Honorable Mention

Honorable Mention

Polymer petals

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

Accidents can sometimes be beautiful. Briana Whitaker and Briana Carstens of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, snapped this photograph as a quality-control step in their experiments to study the forces that cells, such as those that stitch together skin wounds, exert. They visualize these forces by watching how forests of 10-micrometer-tall polymer pillars bend when they place the cells on top of them. Ideally, the pillars should stand straight up, but on this occasion most of the pillars had fallen over. Amazingly, though, they'd all collapsed into a flower petal-like pattern.

Honorable Mention

Heiti Paves and Birger Ilau, Tallinn University of Technology

Within its tiny white flowers, thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) does what most plants avoid -- it fertilizes itself. Heiti Paves of Tallinn University of Technology in Estonia took this photograph of the flower with its pollen grains and ovaries stained blue to show the process in action. From the six pollen heads, the grains grow thin tubes toward the bean-shaped ovaries in the flower's stigma to fertilize them. Because of the microscope technique used, polarized light turns the normally white flower yellow and the background blue. Scientists have used A. thaliana in many genetic studies because its self-fertilization makes experiments clearer. Gregor Mendel, a 19th century priest and scientist, used the self-fertilizing pea plant to build his genetic theories, Paves notes.


First Place

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

Sketch a line and then draw a point off it. How many lines parallel to the first line can you draw through that point? The Greek mathematician Euclid said just one, but for more than 2,000 years after his death, mathematicians struggled to prove that he was right based on his other geometric rules. Then the 19th century Russian mathematician Nikolai Lobachevsky showed that you couldn't: In some circumstances, you can sketch an infinite number of lines through that point and not violate any of Euclid's other axioms. Mathematician Dick Palais of the University of California, Irvine, and digital artist Luc Benard wanted to convey the history of Lobachevsky's solution to this mathematical puzzle with their illustration.

In this illustration, a sheet of paper shows sketches of one of these surfaces, called Kuen's surface, and the expression, called a soliton, that describes it. "We wanted to talk about these equations in a way that non-mathematicians could understand," Palais says. "So we took a symbolic approach: The surface itself stands as a symbol for that equation."

First Place

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

Forget about staring at data on a computer screen; try walking through those statistics and touching them. With this illustration of the forces lung cells exert as they form capillaries, scientists and museum-goers can do just that. The 3.5-meter-tall, three-dimensional art installation is one of several projects by biologist Peter Lloyd Jones and architect Jenny E. Sabin of the University of Pennsylvania's Sabin+Jones LabStudio, that depict large, complex data sets in new ways. "Sometimes graphing data won't tell you about its intricacies," Jones says. "This makes the whole process exciting and interactive."

The sculpture depicts five snapshots from a computer simulation of lung endothelial cells pushing against and pulling on the protein matrix that surrounds them. Using the simulation data as a template, the team connected 75,000 cable zip ties, each representing a single data point, into five, 4.5-meter-wide hanging curtains for each time point. The designers built zip-tie tunnels between the curtains, so viewers could peer through them and watch how the cells' forces changed over time.

Honorable Mention

Jellyfish Burger
David Beck, Clarkson University, and Jennifer Jacquet, University of British Columbia

Fast-food diners don't expect stringy tentacles or a gelatinous blob when they bite into their burger. But marine scientist Jennifer Jacquet of the University of British Columbia in Canada and digital artist Dave Beck of Clarkson University created an illustration that uses this absurd, grotesque creature--the jellyfish--to make their point: overfishing and climate change have significant consequences for marine ecosystems. As the numbers of larger fish dwindle and ocean temperatures rise, the sea becomes more and more ideal for these floating creatures, Jacquet says.

To illustrate the idea, Beck set up a fake burger shoot with buns, tomatoes and lettuce from the market. He then digitally added a computer-generated jellyfish, adjusting it for just the right amount of rubbery gooeyness. "I wanted it to be both funny and scary," Beck says.

Honorable Mention

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

Nature has been building microscopic cellular solar panels for almost 200 million years. So let's follow her lead, says marine biologist Mario De Stefano of the Second University of Naples in Italy. De Stefano and his collaborators have been studying diatoms, microscopic algae, and they believe the organisms' cellular structure could inspire the design of solar panels. This illustration demonstrates the principles of biomimeticism, which involves looking "to natural organisms to see our future," De Stefano says. In the foreground, a scanning electron microscope image shows the blue fans of diatom colonies from the species Licmophora flabellata that have attached themselves to a sand grain with a long, gelatinous anchor, called a peduncle. Each cell is a flat wedge with a glass-like wall shaped to maximize its surface area and absorb sunlight more efficiently for photosynthesis.

Behind the sand grain, the team presents computer drawings of their bio-inspired solar panels, which would stand three meters tall with a span of 50 meters. De Stefano and his collaborators have started building these panels and believe that they could be used to create solar-powered street lamps.

Informational Graphics

First Place

Brain Development
Dwayne Godwin, Wake Forest University School of Medicine, and Jorge Cham, Piled Higher and Deeper

Some comic strips tell stories about caped superheroes saving their city or obese cats tormenting dogs. But this strip tells the tale of how the most complex object in the universe -- your brain -- develops.

Neuroscientist Dwayne Godwin of Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C., and cartoonist Jorge Cham hope to tap into people's curiosity about how their brains become complex computational machines. They explain that our brains start when cells in a four-week-old embryo fold up into a tube. Then they zoom in to describe how individual nerve cells form connections by reaching out and firing chemical signals at each other, a process that continues even after birth. Fast-forward to the teenage years and the brain is still developing -- especially the frontal lobe, which is the judgment and decision-making center. "Which might explain a lot," the team writes in a frame with a woman pointing at her boyfriend's high-school yearbook and laughing at his embarrassing wardrobe choices. The team hopes that a few laughs will help the concepts stick in the readers' brains.

Honorable Mention

Regulation of the Cell Cycle and DNA Damage-Induced Checkpoint Activation
Erin Olson, Daphne Orlando and Tim Manning; R&D Systems, Inc.

Inside a cell's nucleus, some proteins act like quality-control auditors, ensuring that it's safe for the cell to copy its DNA and divide. This informational graphic from Erin Olson and her team at R&D Systems, Inc. in Minneapolis, Minn., sketches how these proteins seek out DNA damage during checkpoints as the cell moves between the four stages of its cycle. In the purple circles, they juxtapose the actions of the checkpoint proteins with the normal events inside the cell's nucleus. Some of these checkpoint proteins detect DNA damage, while others sit on the broken site and recruit new proteins to send out the call for DNA repair enzymes to fix the problem. Olson hopes the poster will serve as a quick reference for researchers and biology students.

Interactive Multimedia

First Place

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

Video games allow players to rock out like Jimi Hendrix or hurl touchdown passes like Peyton Manning. In this interactive media entry, they can turn sunlight into electrons and convert sugar into energy like a plant cell. Jeremy Friedberg and his team at Spongelab Interactive in Toronto, Canada, designed this Web-based game to teach high-school students about the intricate cycles and pathways that keep the cell alive by generating and burning energy.

Games can be important educational tools that go beyond rote memorization, Friedberg says. "I want to know if my students can think critically and be creative and figure out ways through problems," he says. "That's what games can do. They can create scenarios that make students problem-solve."

Noninteractive Multimedia

First Place

Epigenetic tag

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

As children, identical twins are indistinguishable. But as they reach adulthood, physical differences develop. One twin may go gray earlier or the other's facial features may seem more youthful. This short video from the Genetic Science Learning Center at the University of Utah explains that one reason for this phenomenon is epigenetics, the chemical changes cells make to chromosomes.

The A, T, C and G letters of our genetic code are familiar enough. But enzymes write another message onto the nucleotides of our DNA and our chromosome's proteins to control how our genes turn on and off.

Harmony Starr and Molly Malone tell the story of how two twins' epigenetic codes change with their different environments and life choices. This low-tech approach to explaining a technical topic was intentional. "Because there is so much use of computer graphics [in science videos], we hoped the style of this piece would catch people's attention with its simplicity and quirkiness," says the center's director, Louisa Stark.


First Place

Map of human mobility

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

Ever wonder where your dollar bills travel after you plop them down for a cup of coffee? The website "Where's George?" allows you to do just that: record your bill's serial number and then track its journeys as other people spend it across the country. But it's more than just a game, because every time a dollar is spent in a new place, it means someone moved it there. Christian Thiemann and Daniel Grady of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., have been using the website's data to study how people move within the United States.

They produced this video to explain their project and animate the results. Tiny bills stretch out from county to county on a map of the contiguous United States. Some places, such as Los Angeles, Calif., have many bills passing through it from across the nation, while others, such as Anderson County in Tennessee -- Grady's home -- have just a few that mainly cycle locally.


Honorable Mention

Decision Support System for Tsunami Early Warning
Gregor Hochleitner, Christian Gredel and Nils Sparwasser; German Aerospace Center (DLR)

After the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake triggered a devastating tsunami that killed more than 200,000 people, Germany and Indonesia designed a new system to warn people when a tidal wave is about to strike. Nils Sparwasser and his collaborators at the German Aerospace Center produced this video to explain how the new German Indonesian Tsunami Early Warning System combines data from underwater probes, orbiting global positioning system satellites, and floating buoys, to better detect a coming tidal wave.


Honorable Mention

Inside the Brain: Unraveling the Mystery of Alzheimer's Disease
Stacy Jannis, William Dempsey and Rebekah Fredenburg; Jannis Productions

In a brain riddled with Alzheimer's disease, protein tangles grow and connections between nerve cells shrivel. This video by Stacy Jannis and her team at Jannis Productions in Silver Spring, M.D., animates this microscopic damage to explain how the disease starts. The team produced the movie for the National Institute on Aging to depict scientists' most current understanding of what happens inside cells during the disease.


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