Prize Your Imagination

On Wednesday last I was fortunate to find myself an outlier among the great and the good at the Wellcome Trust Image Awards for 2011, where hefty glass slabs were being handed out by Adam Rutherford as prizes to imaginative individuals who had conjured a captivating image from their scientific work. The picture below of a blood clot forming underneath a sticking plaster was one of my favourite prize winners (perhaps because of my long-standing interest in blood):

Clotting blood on sticking plaster

Clotting blood on sticking plaster (Anne Weston, LRI, CRUK)

I was struck by the fact that most of twenty or so awards were for micrographs of one sort or another. Microscopy offers high-resolution access to a unseen world, one that is — in most cases — at the very edge of our perception and so benefits from the excitement of revealing familiar objects in unfamiliar but spectacular detail. It’s a thrill that is as old as the microscope, as Robert Hooke so ably demonstated with his 17th Century bestseller, Micrographia.

Now I don’t wish to bang on about the wonders of molecules again, but I was left feeling a little disappointed that no structural biologists working at the atomic level were to be found among the award winners. I don’t even know if there were any molecular submissions.

But I now see this as a challenge for next year and call upon the protein crystallographers, NMR spectroscopists and cryo-electron microscopists (those engaged in three-dimensional reconstructions) to fire up their computers and their imaginations for the competition in 2012. I’ve made a start — you can see below something rough and ready that I knocked together this evening using a photo editor to assemble molecular images of albumin made with Qutemol (a somewhat limited program that is nonetheless quite, um, cute):

Albumin molecules - here and there

Albumin molecules - here and there

Not too shabby but plenty of room for improvement. I reckon I’ve got almost a year to perfect my technique.

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8 Responses to Prize Your Imagination

  1. rpg says:

    Do they do a video contest too? The Nikon Small World competition, which is in its… 37th? year, now has a video category:

    • Stephen says:

      Yep – well, animations at least. One of the winners this year was a 3D rotating rendition of a mouse embryo.

      Thanks for the Nikon link – something to think about, though I don’t think I could hit the April 2011 deadline.

  2. Paula says:

    I’ve thought of participating before, so I’ll take on the challenge. A year to play with things should be just about enough for my perfectionist graphic designer alter ego.

  3. Steve Caplan says:

    I thought albumin was in dimeric or oligomeric complexes?

    • Stephen says:

      Not so – it’s a monomer. You do get some adventitious dimerisation when highly purified preparations of albumin are stored for long periods – due to formation of disulphide bridges between molecules (there is one free Cysteine on the surface).

      We have to remove these dimer ‘artefacts’ from our preparations before crystallisation. Check out my recent review (open access) for details.

  4. Louise Crane says:

    Stephen, I look forward to your submission! Wellcome Images does indeed hold some molecular-level images. All recent submissions to the collection are eligible for consideration in the Awards, so there could well be a winner of that type next year. In fact, Venki Ramakrishnan’s molecular model of a ribosome won an award in 2008. (don’t let him being a Nobel Laureate deter you!)

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