Contest reveals the artful side of science

April 6, 2011

The talents of UW–Madison scientists are not limited to using tools such as pipettes, mass spectrometers and modeling software. Cameras, microscopes and other more exotic imaging devices help channel their artistic talents, as UW–Madison-based Cool Science Image contest shows.

The Why Files, a UW–Madison science news website, knows the value of a good picture and has hosted an expanding gallery of Cool Science Images for more than 15 years. Now, the site has launched its inaugural Cool Science Image contest, and UW–Madison’s science community responded. Students, faculty and staff submitted more than 60 images. Narrowing it down to just five winners proved difficult for the judges.

Terry Devitt, editor of The Why Files and one of the contest judges, was amazed at the response. “I never expected the volume of responses we got. And the quality is what you would expect from Wisconsin scientists. It was wonderful,” he says.

The winners include Thomas Eiden, undergraduate in nuclear engineering; the team of Judith Kimble, professor, and Kyung Won Kim, research associate, both of biochemistry; Samira Musah, graduate student in chemistry; Sarah Swanson, director of the botany department’s Plant Imaging Center; and Kimberly Toops, doctoral candidate in biomolecular chemistry. Their images will be published under The Why Files’ Cool Science Images, a section devoted to provocative images from the world of science.

Two honorable mentions were awarded to Christine Buhl, doctoral candidate in entomology, and undergraduate Evan Eifler.

The contest idea hatched from a desire to better engage UW–Madison’s science community with The Why Files, as well as to highlight the depth of talent represented at the university, says Devitt.

Because this contest was met with broad interest in its first year, The Why Files plans to make it an annual opportunity for the UW–Madison’s community.

“I think that such a contest is a celebration of the joy of scientific imagery — from the joy of capturing the image that sums up an experiment, to the joy of viewing a beautiful abstract form that also has scientific meaning,” says Steven Paddock, research specialist at Howard Hughes Medical Institute and another contest judge.

Paddock recently helped curate Tandem Press’ photography show “TINY — Art From Microscopes at UW–Madison” at the Dane County Regional Airport, which he said received many positive responses from the public.

Devitt sees this contest as a good outlet to showcase the extraordinary images that scientists create and the public otherwise wouldn’t see. “Science has a lot of inherent beauty, and scientists can sometimes coax that into view with the different techniques they use to capture nature,” says Devitt.

The Why Files has posted a slide show of all the finalists.