Announcing the winners of the inaugural Andrew Olson Scientific Image Awards

Brandon Kim

Ten images have been selected as winners of the inaugural Andrew Olson Scientific Image Awards, presented by the Neuroscience Microscopy Service (NMS) and sponsored by the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute and Carl Zeiss.

Community members filled the Stanford Neurosciences Building to view prize-winning scientific artwork

Community members filled the Stanford Neurosciences Building to view prize-winning scientific artwork. Photo credit: Tim Doyle.

According to NMS director Gordon Wang, the contest is a way of demonstrating a more creative side of science. The contest, named in honor of NMS founding director Andrew Olson, celebrates the “breadth, ingenuity and vision of the Stanford imaging community.” Judges focused both on technical and artistic merit, selecting images that demonstrated not only scientific importance and technical prowess, but also aesthetic value. 

“I was a literature major when I was an undergrad,” Wang said. “Now that I’m the director of the NMS, I decided that it was time to showcase the other side of scientists.”

The awards were announced April 25 at a community gathering in the Stanford Neurosciences Building, where images were displayed as if for a museum gallery opening, drawing crowds of faculty, trainees and staff from across the Stanford neuroscience community.

“This is an amazing event,” said Amalia Perna, a postdoc in the Montine lab who won the contest’s grand prize — a pair of high-end Zeiss binoculars — for her piece, “the Van Golgi,” a recreation of Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” crafted from mouse brain slices stained with the classic Golgi method. “There are so many beautiful images — I’m a little shocked to have won!”

Q&A with grand prize winner Amalia Perna

Q&A with runner up Chiara Anselmi

Q&A with runner up Alakananda Das

Amalia Perna and her winning art, being held by NMS Director Gordon Wang
Amalia Perna describes her prize-winning artwork, being held by NMS Director Gordon Wang. Photo credit Nicholas Weiler.

Runner-up Chiara Anselmi describes her artwork to community members
Runner-up Chiara Anselmi describes her artwork, "Connected consciousness in a deep-sea egalimind," to community members. Photo credit Nicholas Weiler.

Wang and Olson both emphasized in their remarks the challenge faced by the judges in selecting a winner from among the dozens of remarkable submissions the contest received from across the Stanford scientific community — ranging in scope from the astronomical (an image of the bow shock of a ‘black widow’ pulsar) to the nearly invisible (an electron micrograph of mitochondria at the synapse).

As a result, the judges decided to honor not just one image, as originally planned, but 10 —all of which will hang in the Stanford Neuroscience Building’s public spaces to celebrate the community’s artistic vision and technological prowess. In addition, the top three artists received canvas prints of their art to keep.

The award ceremony was also an opportunity for the community to celebrate Olson, who retired amid the COVID-19 pandemic after 13 years as director of the NMS since its founding in 2007.

A community member views runner-up artwork "California Sunset" by Alakananda Das
A community member views runner-up artwork "California Sunset" by Alakananda Das. Photo credit Nicholas Weiler. 

Before announcing the winners, Olson shared a story illustrating how the contest reflected the NMS’s mission of advancing scientific imaging.

"I made a couple of drives today,” Olson said. “The skies were really incredible. Huge cumulus clouds, mostly puffy white and backlit by the sun. Incredibly dramatic. It’s one of those evanescent moments of heart-aching beauty, that we observe, even as they slip through our fingers. One of the things that's remarkable about these scientific images is that they capture the same sense of awe and beauty, but give it permanence by advancing our knowledge. It’s a reflection of the human spirit to learn and discover."

Andrew Olson, founding director of the NMS presented the awards at the contest named in his honor

Andrew Olson, founding director of the NMS presented the awards at the contest named in his honor. Photo credit Nicholas Weiler.

Grand Prize

The Van Golgi

Amalia Perna
Postdoctoral Scholar, Montine Lab, Department of Pathology

The Van Golgi, by Amalia Perna

Artist’s Statement: The Van Golgi is composed by snapshots of a Golgi-stained mouse brain slices which are pieced together to reproduce the famous Starry Night, envisioned by Van Gogh. In this version, the night sky is filled with whirling clouds portrayed by the bundle of nerve fibers forming the corpus callosum, shining stars that are rendered by the rounded neurons of the hypothalamus and the moon is a crack in the tissue. Neurons of the hippocampus sprout from the purple-blue pyramidal cell layer, revealed by cresyl violet counter-staining, and shape the cypress tree. Lastly, the little village below the hills is symbolized by the vertically oriented cortical neurons of the cerebral cortex.

Second Place

Connected Consciousness in an Undersea Egalimind

Chiara Anselmi
Postdoctoral Scholar, Weissman Lab, Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine

"Connected Consciousness in an Undersea Egalimind" Chiara Anselmi

Artist’s Statement: This is a colony of the marine colonial chordate B. schlosseri, composed of 13 individual zooids sharing a circulatory system. Within each individual, the brain and neurons comprising the central nervous system are marked in green while the two syphons are shown in orange and the branchial basket in purple. This picture is a collage of 3 different images obtained using a confocal microscope that highlight the expression of 3 different genes: APP in green highlights the neurons, GFAP in orange highlights the epithelium of the siphons, and SOX2 in purples highlight the stigmata cells. 

Egalimind, in science fiction, are all members that can share the same mind, memories, and thoughts, and each member is an individual, and acts as an independent agent when they so desire. These remind me Botryllus schlosseri, a colonial chordate that every week undergoes a de novo robust regeneration mediated by adult stem cells which participate in the formation of all body organs, including the central nervous system. The life of adult zooids lasts ~1 week after which their bodies undergo a synchronized wave of programmed cell death and phagocytic removal called takeover in which the nervous systems of old zooids degenerate in tangent to brain formation in the young buds. 

Third Place

A Californian Sunset

Alakananda Das
Postdoctoral Scholar, Goodman Lab, Department of Molecular and Cellular Physiology

"A Californian Sunset," by Alakananda Das

Artist’s Statement: 

Our sense of touch is made possible by specialized neurons that use ion channels to convert mechanical stimuli into electrical signals. The image shows a montage of kymographs, created from a series of videos, showing stationary and moving puncta along a touch receptor neuron in a worm (Caenorhabditis elegans). The data reveal the dynamics of the fluorescently tagged mechanosensory ion-channel (MEC-4) in the worm touch receptor. 

Kymographs are a form of data representation used to depict motion of objects along a path over time, such that stationary objects appear as horizontal lines and moving objects appear as diagonal lines. In this image, the path, which is the longitudinal axis of the neuron is in the vertical direction. The horizontal direction shows the change in time. The straight horizontal lines represent the characteristic immobile MEC-4 channels at discrete punctate locations along the neuron. In addition, the kymograph also reveals several particles that are moving along the neuron (jagged lines), which we have shown to be vesicles trafficking the MEC-4 channels. The kymograph was created from raw videos using the open source image analysis software, ImageJ, and a custom colormap was applied to the original 8-bit monochrome image using Adobe Photoshop.

Honorable Mention

Cardiac Vascularized Organoid ('Heart Star')

Oscar Abilez
Senior Research Scientist, Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery

"Heart Star," by Oscar Abilez

Artist’s Statement: Lack of organoid vascularization has been a bottleneck in the stem cell field and here we show our efforts to overcome this challenge. This live cell image shows a cardiac vascularized organoid (cVO) differentiated from a micropatterned hESC triple reporter line (hESC-3R) over 16 days (~ 3 weeks of in vivo human development); the hESC-3R line has the TNNT2 promoter driving GFP to identify cardiomyocytes (green), the CDH5 promoter driving mOrange to identify endothelial cells (orange), and the TAGLN promoter driving CFP to identify smooth muscle cells (blue). Nuclei are labeled with the DRAQ5 nuclear stain (red). Note concentric organization of cell types and endothelial cell "starburst" pattern; this spatial arrangement highlights the fascinating ability of stem cells to self-organize.

Cerebellar Tapestry 

Kristina Micheva
Senior Research Scientist, Madison Lab, Department of Molecular and Cellular Physiology

"Cerebellar Tapestry," by Kristina Micheva

Artist’s Statement: Immunofluorescent array tomography shows the main cell types in mouse cerebellum: the blue Purkinje neurons are the largest cells and within their elaborate dendritic arbors are nestled the smaller magenta basket and stellate cells; the yellow granule cells are clumped in the middle. The Purkinje neurons send out their axons covered by white myelin through the granule cell layer. These images were taken during a routine screening for antibodies, but the experiment turned out to be rewarding in many ways – not only did the antibodies work well in this demanding application, but the resulting images were beautiful!

Adult mouse cerebellum, labeled with antibodies against parvalbumin (magenta), calbindin (blue) and myelin basic protein (white); cell nuclei are stained with DAPI (yellow). Sixty ultrathin serial sections (70 nm each) through the cerebellum were imaged on a Zeiss AxioImager Z1 with a 20x objective and the volume was reconstructed using FIJI.

Dopaminergic Bat

Wenjie Bian
Postdoctoral Research Fellow, DeLecea Lab, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences

"Dopaminergic Bat," by Wenjie Bian

Artist’s Statement: Multiple coronal sections of the same mouse brain were stained for the dopaminergic neurons using antibodies against the tyrosine hydroxylase (TH), and the TH immunofluorescence is rendered in different pseudo colors (orange red, teal, slate gray and crimson). Three inverted sections were overlaid in the upper half of the image, and another section with a few virally infected neurons (black) was in the lower half of the image.

The image was composed using immunofluorescence images acquired using a Zeiss LSM710 confocal microscope. The TH immunofluorescence from the three upper sections form a pattern that looks like a bat or a bird with spread wings, while that in the lower section looks like the reflection or the mirror image of the upper part.

Mammalian Cochlea

Richard Seist
Postdoctoral Scholar, Stankovic Lab, Otolaryngology — Head & Neck Surgery

"Mammalian Cochlea," by Richard Seist

Artist’s Statement: Hidden within the skull’s densest bone, the mammalian cochlea is a beautiful, spiraling organ, with wonders yet to be unraveled. The neonatal, six-day-old murine cochlea was stained for markers of sensory hair cells (green) and primary auditory neurons (red) and imaged on a Leica SP8 laser confocal microscope.

Oink Oink! A Complex World of Piglet Brain

Jieun Kim
Director, Neuroscience Preclinical Imaging Laboratory

"Oink Oink! A Complex World of Piglet Brain," by Jieun Kim

Artist’s Statement: Complex neuronal tracking of piglet brain visualized by Diffusion Tensor Magnetic Resonance Imaging. Data were acquired from ex-vivo piglet brain using Bruker 7T BioSpec system. Center image is a slice from 3D T1w MRI with 200um isotropic resolution. Left image is a processed DTI data and right image is a left image overlayed with FA map. DTI data parameters are: TE/TR = 0.75/3500 ms diffusion time 8.4ms, 40 diffusion directions, b-value = 1032.19 s/mm^2, inplane resolution 400um, slice thk = 800um.

One, None and a Hundred Thousand of Thalamic Projections

Vera Vigo and Maximiliano Nunez
Visiting Instructor/Lecturer, Skull Base Lab, Stanford Neurosurgical Training and Innovation (NeuroTraIn) Center (Vigo)
Fellow, NeuroTraIn Center (Nunez)

"One, None and a Hundred Thousand of Thalamic Projections," by Vera Vigo and Maximiliano Nunez

Artist’s Statement: This picture shows an anatomical dissection of the globus pallidus and the thalamic projection. Our artist Dr. Maximiliano Nunez (from Argentina) performed this dissection during his Fellowship at the NeuroTraIn Center.


Cosmos Wang
Clinical Scholar, Sudhof Lab, Neuroimaging & Neurointervention (Radiology)

"Trio," by Cosmos Wang

Artist’s Statement: Three mitral cells are marked with three different markers: EGFP co-expressed with transgenic Cas9, tdTomato from AAV co-expressing guide RNAs and neurobiotin filled during recording. This experiment helps reveal the molecular mechanism of synapse biology in the olfactory bulb.