The 2021 winners: Cool Science Image Contest

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Ten images and two videos created by students, faculty and staff at the University of Wisconsin-Madison were named winners of the 2021 Cool Science Image Contest.

A jury made up of nine experienced artists, scientists and science communicators assessed the scientific content as well as the aesthetic and creative qualities of numerous images and videos submitted for the 11th annual competition. The winning entries show animals and plants, the invisible small structures around us, as well as stars and nebulae that are millions of millions of kilometers away.

An exhibition with the winners is open until December at the Mandelbaum and Albert Family Vision Gallery of the McPherson Eye Research Institute on the ninth floor of the Wisconsin Institute for Medical Research, 111 Highland Ave. A public reception for the competition participants will take place on October 7th from 4.30pm to 6.30pm in the gallery

The winning entries were created using point-and-shoot digital cameras, state-of-the-art microscopes and telescopes in both the backyard and mountain top versions.

Because sometimes there is no substitute for the visual.

“A picture can often convey meanings more effectively than words,” says Ahna Skop, longtime competition judge, artist and UW Madison professor of genetics and active ambassador for science. “We know from marketing and education research that adding a picture with words to a slide increases knowledge retention by 65 percent. The visual communication of science is crucial for the broad transfer of knowledge. “

The story continues after the gallery


A “winterover” – one of the two employees who endures the minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit nights of the coldest months in Antarctica – wanders under the stars and northern lights to the South Pole, home of IceCube, a neutrino-led by UW-Madison Telescope that is frozen in one cubic kilometer of ice.

Yuya Makino, Research Associate, IceCube Neutrino Observatory

Digital camera

Cross-section through stringy bark


The large holes in this cross-section of a stem of desert stringybark, Eucalyptus arenacea, are channels through plant tissue that help researchers quantify the way the plant, native to arid parts of Australia, is adapting to a new, more humid environment .

Kennah Konrad, Undergraduate student, botany;
Duncan Smith, PhD student, botany

compound microscope

Mouse heart


Fluorescent antibodies mark the extensive nervous system of a mouse heart. By creating maps of heart nerves with unprecedented accuracy, researchers can study how these nerves affect heart function.

Rebecca Salamon, PhD Student, Cell and Regenerative Biology

confocal microscope

Orion Nebula


Messier 42, known as the Orion Nebula, is located in the sword of the Orion constellation and is one of the brightest nebulae in the sky. At just 1,400 light years away and 24 light years across, it’s one of the closest and largest regions of dense gas and dust where stars are formed.

Jeffrey E. Shokler, Associate Director, Office of Undergraduate Advising

Refractor telescope and CCD camera

Sundew plant


The carnivorous sundew plant grabs insect meals with armloads of tentacles that it can move to tighten its grip and sink prey in sticky secretions. The leaves roll around a meal to help enzymes digest and absorb nutrients.

Nisha Iyer, Postdoc, Wisconsin Institute for Discovery

Digital camera

Graphene ribbons


Labyrinths of tiny structures less than 15 billionths of a meter in diameter and made of some of the smallest graphene ribbons – layers of carbon just a single atom thick – ever made represent a major step towards graphene-based telecommunications devices.

Joel Siegel and Margaret Fortman, PhD students, physics;Jian sun, PhD student, materials science;Jonathan Dwyer, PhD alumnus, chemical engineering

Scanning electron microscope

Dragonflies on the water


A pair of mating dragonflies pauses on the surface of a Minnesota pond. Dragonfly coupling begins with the male (with blue markings) grasping the female with clamps at the very end of his abdomen. To complete the act, the female will bend her abdomen under her body to meet the male’s abdomen and create a distinctive heart shape.

Shin-Tsz (Lucy) KuoBachelor student, computer science and economics

Digital camera

White matter in the brain


The white matter, the connective tissue of the brain, was colored according to the predominant orientation of the fibers – red, right-left; green, front-back; blue, top to bottom – in different regions of the human brain to show the pathways through the regions. Understanding the organization of white matter can provide insight into normal brain development, as well as the study of neurological disorders.

Jose Guerrero, Postdoc, Medical Physics;Andrew Alexander, Professor, Medical Physics;Peter FerrazzanoProfessor, Pediatrics

Magnetic resonance tomograph

Axons in the brain


The yellow connecting arms, called axons, of diseased human brain cells grow haphazardly beyond the limits of the inhibiting chemicals (the red stripes). Healthy axons would follow the dark trail closely, giving researchers the ability to test the effects of disease-causing mutations on axon growth.

Timothy Catlett
PhD Student, Cell and Molecular Biology;Timothy Gomez, Professor, Neuroscience

confocal microscope

A silicon wafer


By varying the exact size and shape of these micrometer-wide, star-shaped pillars etched into a silicon wafer, researchers can carefully manipulate the light passing through a lens to correct for aberrations that would otherwise focus different wavelengths of light onto different points in space.

Gregory Holdman, PhD student, physics

focused ion beam and scanning electron microscope

Recurrent neural networks are the computing machines behind state-of-the-art applications from self-driving cars to speech recognition such as Amazon’s Alexa. The behavior of these networks is difficult to characterize, but can be visualized for small networks. This video shows the behavior of a network with only three neurons and shows how their output evolves by mapping their values ​​in blue. The result, a fractal structure known as a “strange attractor,” could help researchers better understand the behavior and properties of these types of networks.

David J. Nowak, Alumnus and auditing student; Robert D. Nowak, Professor, Electrical Engineering and Information Technology

This video was recorded at 20,000 frames per second and shows the shock wave-induced mixing of two gases – raw images on the left; adjusted to better reflect the concentration of the lighter gas on the right. Experiments like this are carried out in the 9-meter-high Wisconsin Shock Tube shown on the left to simulate and research the mixing at the interface of materials under extreme conditions such as nuclear fusion, supernovae and hypersonic propulsion.

Josh Duke, Postdoc and professor David Rothamer, both mechanical engineering; Riccardo Bonazza, Professor, Technical Physics


Continued from the gallery above

There can be something unspeakable that makes a particularly effective science image – it’s the “cool” thing in the Cool Science Image Contest – but the good ones have a lot in common.

“You will know when you see it. It’s like seeing “Starry Night” or the “Mona Lisa” in person for the first time. They hit you deeply and quickly, ”says Skop. “They’re easy on the eye, simple, and convey meaning. Some pictures just take your breath away. When they look deeper, they exquisitely convey the secrets of science. “

The Cool Science Image Contest recognizes the technical and creative skills required to capture images or videos that reveal something about science or nature while making an impression with their beauty or their ability to work wonders. The competition is sponsored by Madison’s Promega Corp. sponsored, with additional support from the UW-Madison Division of the Arts.

Winning entries will be widely distributed on the UW Madison websites and all entries will be featured at campus science events and in on-campus academic and laboratory facilities throughout the year. Since there was no way to personally present the winners of the 2020 competition, this year’s exhibition has a double function for both the 2020 and 2021 competitions. Check out last year’s winners.

The competition judges were:

Steve Ackerman, Professor of Atmospheric and Ocean Sciences and Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education

Terry Devitt, Director Emeritus Research Communications, University Communications

Kevin Eliceiri, Director, Optical and Computational Instrumentation Laboratory

Michael King, Visual Communication Specialist, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences

Steve Paddock, Former Scientist, Molecular Biology

Kara Rogers, science writer and editor, Encyclopedia Britannica

Ahna Skop, professor of genetics

Kelly Tyrrell, Director of Research Communications, University Communications

Craig Wild, Videographer, University Communications

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