2011 International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge


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Science  03 Feb 2012:
Vol. 335, Issue 6068, pp. 534-535
DOI: 10.1126/science.335.6068.534

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1st Place & People's Choice

Rapid Visual Inventory & Comparison of Complex 3D Structures

Graham Johnson, TSRI & grahamj.com; Andrew Noske, NCMIR; Bradley Marsh, IMB

In this video, Ph.D. animator Graham Johnson of the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, California, and colleagues take the normally jumbled pieces of a mouse pancreatic cell and stack them into neat piles. It's an organizational feat sure to please cleanliness-loving scientists. But the visualization also gives researchers and students a new look at the abundances and relative sizes of organelles, from mitochondria to insulin granules. “The cell is a lot more complicated-looking than most people think of it,” Johnson says. “We wanted to clarify it.”

The video opens with a 3D model of a chaotic cell taken from the pancreas as seen in its natural state. Thousands of irregularly shaped organelles huddle around a central and bean-shaped nucleus. Then, Johnson and colleagues start to spring-clean. Drawing on data from the lab of team member Bradley Marsh, a cell biologist at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, the researchers simplify the cell's components and then sort them by organelle. They first group together the mitochondria (green) and insulin granules (blue), then clump these and other organelles together to form uniform columns and rows for easy comparison.

The resulting image looks less like a cell and more like a 3D abacus. But it also displays the relative volumes of these cellular factories and compartments. Surprisingly, for instance, mitochondria occupy only 7% of the cell volume, which is hard to see from the raw cell alone.

This visualization, Johnson says, represents the middle ground between the two standard depictions of the cell: the natural, or chaotic, cell and the cartoonish, or textbook, cell. That became clear when the team showed the video to school kids in Australia: “When they could see the random, video-game-looking cell morph into the type of cell that their teacher had been presenting to them from textbooks and the Internet,” he says, “they really got excited.”

The team “manages to weave into one short video an unbelievable amount of information,” says challenge judge Tierney Thys. “From morphology to volumetrics and beyond, it presents completely different data sets in a seamless, accessible, and aesthetic manner.”

Honorable Mention

High-Density Energy Storage Using Self-Assembled Materials

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

Northwestern University

In one of the most famous scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey, futuristic spaceships spin and twirl to The Blue Danube by Johann Strauss. Christopher Wilmer and colleagues at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, kick off their video with that same whimsical waltz. Instead of spinning spaceships, however, their visualization shows hundreds of molecules floating around and joining to each other to form solid crystals. Wilmer, a big fan of Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film, had for years looked for an “excuse” to dramatize his research using Strauss's music: Kubrick “wanted to convey the majesty of space engineering,” Wilmer says. “I also wanted to convey the majesty of self-assembly on the molecular scale.”

Wilmer's work focuses on how gaseous fuel molecules such as methane cling to solids. Unlike liquid gasoline, gaseous methane—a much cleaner energy source—is tough to squeeze into automobile gas tanks. But when scientists add special porous crystals to those tanks, methane begins to cluster inside the pores, greatly increasing the gas's density. His team employs computer algorithms to screen thousands of possible crystal structures to identify the ones best suited to concentrating methane and other gases. The topic isn't simple, but, with the help of this playfully animated video, Wilmer says he and his labmates have finally been able to explain their research to relatives. The homage to a sci-fi classic doesn't hurt.

Honorable Mention

There's No Such Thing as a Jellyfish

Steven Haddock, Susan Von Thun

MBARI & jellywatch.org

Don't call them jellyfish. Portuguese man o' wars, comb jellies, and larvaceans may all look gooey and diaphanous, but they're also very different animals, according to this video by marine biologist Steven Haddock and colleagues at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing, California. Creatures often lumped under the label “jellyfish” in truth reflect a startling diversity of sea life: “Jellyfish are not just horrible, ugly stinging blobs,” Haddock says. “They're actually a lot of different shapes and sizes.”

Haddock and his crew shot the creatures in this video from a deep-sea submersible below California's Monterey Bay. There are the long and billowing sea nettles belonging to a class of animals called Scyphozoa and Siphonophores such as the purple and sometimes deadly Portuguese man o' wars. Many of these organisms live as gigantic superorganisms, in which many individuals have specialized to take on different roles. Comb jellies are frequently covered in rows of beating hairlike cilia that propel them through the water. Then there are the larvaceans, pea-sized invertebrates that secrete balloonlike houses made from mucus. In all, the video is an effective PSA for the neglected creatures of the sea.

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