Capturing the Beauty of Science: 2016’s scientific images inspire new art

Sara Grady
December 8, 2016

Science can produce surprising and beautiful images. The annual Scientific Images Contest highlights some of the stunning work created in Northwestern labs in a range of disciplines. The twelve winning images of 2016 showcase research fields including medicine, chemistry, nanotechnology, and astrophysics.

The collective exhibition of these lab-based works was unveiled at Evanston Township High School last month, and many of the winning participants visited the school to share their work with students. The prize winners -- include Northwestern faculty, staff ,and students from a range of disciplines -- were announced at an evening reception November 7th.

Kelly Jarvis, a graduate student in Michael Markl's Cardiac Imaging lab, took top honors with her team’s innovative 4D-Flow MRI image of a human heart while Austin Isner, a graduate student in the department of chemical and biological engineering, took home the People’s Choice Award, as voted by ETHS students. Isner’s image depicts the movement and sedimentation of granular solids.

The opening exhibition ran for three weeks at the high school and--along the winning Northwestern images--included seventy-seven new artworks. These pieces were developed by students in several ETHS art classes and one physics class, exploring the forms, shapes and patterns of scientific phenomena through creative interpretation and reconceptualization.

At the beginning of fall semester, art students in AP Studio Art, AP Drawing & Painting, and Drawing 1 were shown the twelve Northwestern images asked to select one as the basis of their own project.

While each class worked in different media, from paint to pastels to ceramics, the process was the same. Students had a research-based image but no contextual data. They didn’t have any information on the research, scientific field, title, or caption from which to draw clues. This gave them fresh eyes to explore their own work while also developing a natural curiosity about their inspiration piece.

“I liked how it was totally mysterious and I had no idea what it was supposed [to be].” Said Abigail, an ETHS senior. “I figured [it] would help me be more creative with the project.”

Mia, also a senior, selected Zach Hafen’s computer simulation One Galaxy, Multiple Perspectives. She said she really enjoyed working with such visually arresting source material. “I first was impressed by the whole piece, hence why I chose it. It looked like a supernova to me and the colors reminding me of sunsets or lanterns. I really wanted to paint in those colors, both vibrant and calming.”

On November 7th, students finally got to meet the scientists and find out more about the research which inspired their pieces. Many of the researchers were thrilled to meet the students who’d taken such an interest in their work, and the students were curious to find out more about the scientific processes behind the research.

Andrea met some of the researchers during the opening event and was curious to know more about “… the ways [the scientists] were able to do these things and I'm glad to see how passionate they were about their work.”

For Abigail, who had chosen Karna Gowda’s composite satellite images A Slow March Through the Desert, the synergy between her painting and the source image were surprising. “[He] said that his picture was a picture of a Somalian desert, how it had changed over time and also how the land was depleting. I made my artwork on four African women who were melting away and they were trying to help each other up. I just find it interesting how our pieces were both based on Africa and something … being ruined and we didn't even know it.”

With as many as six or seven artworks inspired by the same scientific image, the unique interpretations and choices of the artists were an added element of interest for many. For Katherine, one of the most surprising aspects of the project was “seeing all of the pieces that were based off the same exact picture and how they were drastically different [and] varied.”

While some the student artwork will be taken down in November -- many for senior portfolios and college applications – the Northwestern Scientific Images Contest images and winning researchers are only just beginning their journey. They, along with a select group of ETHS student pieces, will continue their tour of Evanston and Chicago venues throughout the academic year, next appearing at Evanston Public Library from December 1 – January 16.

Galleries of the winning Northwestern images and some of the student pieces are now on HELIX magazine’s website. Current exhibition details can be found on the library website.






A digital science magazine published by Science in Society and written by Northwestern faculty, students and staff.

Connect with Science in Society on Facebook and Twitter.