Subliminal beauty — discovering the “art of science”


The UC San Diego Library partners with the San Diego Museum of Natural History for an exhibit celebrating the intersection of art and science.

The “Art of Science” competition was created to showcase the beauty that can emerge during scientific research at UC San Diego and beyond.

Metadata Librarian Abigail Pennington was inspired to create the contest by a collection in the UC San Diego Library Repository called the Cellular Image Library.

Bacterial flowers: Image of complex structures that appear during interactions between different strains of bacteria. The entry won the 2022 Judges Award for the Faculty/Project Scientific Participant category. The nomination was submitted by Lev Tsimring, research associate at UC San Diego’s BioCircuit Institute and contributor Liyang Xiong.

“These are images that come from the on-campus microscopy center,” Pennington said. “There are tens of thousands of them, and so we’ve ingested them over time. And once they’re in the repository, I go through all the images and find out the amazing things that are happening. And they’re beautiful. I mean, at first you don’t know what you’re looking at, then you read that it’s bacteria with some type of dye injected into it. Or you see something that can be tricky like this is a breast cancer cell. But what first caught your attention was that it’s beautiful.”

As a metadata librarian, Pennington works with researchers and research data. She, along with a small team of curators, is responsible for meeting with the researchers and then determining how to organize all the data so that it is accessible to other researchers and reusable.

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Maggie Yu, an associate undergraduate student in the departments of Cognitive Science and Visual Arts at UC San Diego, submitted Jellyfish: 3D Model of Jellyfish Generated by Diffusion Tensor Imaging. He won the 2022 Judges Award for the Undergraduate Participant Category.

This year, Pennington is excited to bring “the art of science” to a wider audience through a new partnership with the San Diego Museum of Natural History (The Nat).

“I think it’s a great partnership because they do it every day,” Pennington said. “They take the science and they make it understandable, accessible to the average visitor. And that’s what we want to do, is give researchers the opportunity to explain their research in a way that viewers can understand. Like they’re beautiful, I think they capture our attention and they make us want to dig a little deeper and say, “Hey, what’s up with that picture? What’s the science behind this?” And I think that’s exciting. I think it’s a time where we want researchers to be able to explain their work in a way that we can understand because there’s big issues right now with climate change and the pandemic, and how do we learn from these researchers and what they’re doing and maybe see what’s on the horizon?”

For the second year, the Art of Science has called for applications from students, scholars, and affiliates at UC San Diego. Participants were asked to submit images or graphics that tell a story about their research, along with a caption that explains their work in a way that is engaging and accessible to non-scientists. Then, a panel of judges made up of faculty and administrators from the UC San Diego campus and community selected the winners.

Adi Khen, a Ph.D. a candidate at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, studies corals and algae and how they respond to heat stress associated with long-term global climate change. She also participates in the teaching of a phycology course (study of algae).

She had a winning entry in last year’s contest.

“I used to think about the connection between art and science because although I’m a scientist by training, I’m also an artist on the side,” Khen said. “I’m a self-taught science illustrator, and I do a lot of digital illustrations that are used as concept diagrams and infographics for other educational resources. And so I’m a big believer in how art and science are interconnected .”

This year she submitted another winning entry titled Seaweed Kaleidoscopes.

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Adi Khen, a graduate student associate at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Smith Lab, won the 2022 Judges Award in the Graduate Student category. His submission was Seaweed Kaleidoscopes described as “This image was created using pressures from common seaweed species found in San Diego, including feather boa kelp.”

“I’m really thrilled that the seaweed is getting this recognition,” Khen said. “They are usually overlooked or underestimated, but personally they are one of my passions. I think they are not only beautiful but really important. They are a food source for herbivores like fish and sea ​​urchins, and then they can also be used by humans for aquaculture, biofuels, pharmaceuticals, even climate mitigation, yet they are often underestimated or overlooked, so I love seaweed, and I am happy that we can highlight their beauty, but also in this way convey their value.”

Khen explained his process for creating the entry: “This is a digital photo editing of different seaweeds that are commonly found in San Diego. To create this piece, I collected seaweed that the are found here locally and I basically mounted them on sheets of thick paper, almost like watercolor paper, placing the seaweed, then wax paper over it, then surrounding that with blotting paper or whatever to absorb moisture, like newspaper. And that’s sandwiched between cardboard and placed between these wooden boards, on which you can place heavy objects like textbooks to flatten them. And then once the seaweed was dry, I photographed it and used Photoshop to digitally add a kaleidoscope effect.

The winning works are now on display through October 24 at UC San Diego’s Wong Avery Breezeway Library and on the first floor of the San Diego Museum of Natural History in Balboa Park.


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