2016 Vizzies winners -NSF and Popular Science visual science contest

The 2016 Vizzies Winners

The most exciting areas of science often can’t be seen with the naked eye because the phenomena are too big or too small, too slow or too fast. That’s why we believe it’s worth honoring those who use novel techniques — or create exceptional examples of traditional ones — to present scientific ideas visually. So, for the second year, Popular Science has teamed up with the National Science Foundation to bring you exemplars of information made beautiful. Congratulations to the winners!



Experts’ Choice

image of a drop touching a liquid surface
Walking in color
Credit: Daniel M. Harris and John W.M. BushQuantum physics measures movements of the tiniest particles in the universe, which not only happen incredibly quickly and on very small scales, but also defy physicists’ intuition. Analogies from the macroscopic world can help scientists visualize quantum-like phenomena more easily. Daniel Harris, then a doctoral student at MIT, turned to a quirky relationship between liquid droplets and a vibrating bath.

The vibration stops the droplet from assimilating into the bath, and it bounces across the surface instead. The droplet and the waves it creates mimic some of the statistical behaviors of quantum particles — except they’re visible to the naked eye. The photo is one of several hundred Harris took for his doctorate, all snapped with an off-the-shelf camera.

People’s Choice

Image of a lobster larvae
American lobster larva
Credit: Jesica Waller, Halley McVeigh and Noah Oppenheim

As a master’s student in marine biology at the University of Maine, Jesica Waller spent the summer taking pictures of baby lobsters. Increasingly warm and acidic oceans affect many marine species, and so Waller raised thousands of lobsters in the lab — no easy task, since young lobsters tend to eat one another — to see how different climate-change scenarios alter their development.

This image of a live three-week-old specimen was one of thousands Waller took. It captures the distinct, delicate hairs on the legs. Since lobsters have very poor vision, they rely on their leg hairs for sensory tasks such as finding food. Adults have them too, meaning baby and grown-up lobsters alike taste with their feet.


Experts’ Choice

illustration showing seadragons at avrious stages of development
Weedy seadragon life cycle
Credit: Stephanie Rozzo
During her time volunteering at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, freelance science illustrator Stephanie Rozzo helped clean the seahorse exhibit. Over time, she found herself enchanted by their colors and movements. Rozzo knew she had her next illustration subject when one male began carrying eggs (as males of the species do).

She rendered an expectant pair of seadragons — native Australian fish closely related to seahorses — in acrylic paint with their seaweed habitat in graphite. The work depicts the species’ life stages from embryonic fry through adulthood.


People’s Choice

image showing e coli bacteria structure
The FtsZ ring: a multilayered protein network
Credit: Jennifer E. Fairman

When her colleague Jie Xiao approached her to make an illustration for a journal article, Jennifer Fairman didn’t know just how challenging the assignment would be. Xiao was studying E. coli bacteria. Her team had revealed the arrangement of proteins, including one called FtsZ, at the site where E. coli bacterium divides.

Though she was working for a scientific audience, Fairman says she hopes the layperson can appreciate the complexity of the microscopic world in the image. Harold Erickson, a cell biologist at Duke University who has studied FtsZ but wasn’t involved in the research, called the model “quite an achievement.”


Experts’ Choice

illustration showing the aquatic plant common bladderwort
The trapping mechanism of the common bladderwort
Credit: Wai-Man Chan

The common bladderwort is a diminutive aquatic plant with fetching yellow flowers that lives on ponds and lakes in Asia and Europe. But under the surface, it hides a carnivorous secret: 1-inch chambers — or bladders — along its branches that suck in unsus¬pecting prey.

Wai-Man Chan, a graduate student in biomedical visualization at the University of Illinois at Chicago, saw a plastic model of a bladderwort at the Field Museum in Chicago, and says she was intrigued that the tiny, bulbous bladder could contain such a powerful trap.

Her poster captures the dramatic moment just before the green monster ensnares a passing water flea, presenting the organism’s anatomy in exquisite — and appropriately creepy — detail.

People’s Choice

illustration showing imagaes from Antarctica and various colors
Antarctica: a chromatic paradox
Credit: Skye Moret

Even after nine trips to Antarctica as a marine-science technician, Skye Moret is still awed by the sea life that surrounds the icy continent. The waters brim with yellow sea stars, pink sea cucumbers, and delicate purple octopuses. To show off the vibrancy of the sub-marine environment, Moret compared 50 land and seascapes from above the surface with 50 shallow-water shots from below. She sampled the pixels from each image, and ordered them by hue and value.

The resulting visualization hints at the color and diversity in the Southern Ocean. Moret wants to awe viewers but also remind them of climate change’s reach. “Life underneath the surface is warming also — it’s threatened and vulnerable, and it’s typically neglected in the dialogue,” she says.



Experts’ Choice

image showing Earth and how carbon dioxide flows

A year in the life of Earth’s CO2
Credit: Bernhard Jenny, Bojan Šavric, Johannes Liem, William M. Putman, Kayvon Sharghi, Aaron E. Lepsch and Patrick Lynch

While a professor at Oregon State, cartographer Bernhard Jenny made this visualization, which shows how carbon dioxide travels around the globe.

The work builds on research by NASA meteorologist Bill Putman, whose team modeled atmospheric CO2 flows and created a video of the result. Jenny integrated the video with an interface that allows users to reposition the globe and explore the data themselves.

“We wanted to make this video as engaging as possible to illustrate how humans change our planet,” Jenny says.

People’s Choice

screenshot of the interactive graphic showing how machine learning works

A visual introduction to machine learning
Credit: Stephanie Yee and Tony Chu

As an employee of a company that provides digital security through machine learning, Stephanie Yee spent a lot of time familiarizing clients with the secret sauce behind her product. So she and her colleague, designer Tony Chu, set out to create an interactive graphic that would do the explaining for them.

The pair chose a topic they thought would be intuitive to most people — real estate prices — and created an interactive environment that builds in complexity as the user scrolls. In the first 30 days, the site got 250,000 page views worldwide. Feedback showed Chu and Yee that experts in many fields could use their interactives. The duo is collaborating with academics to tailor their next set of explanatory machine-learning visualizations to different disciplines.


Experts’ Choice and People’s Choice


Coral bleaching: A breakdown of symbiosis
Credit: Fabian de Kok-Mercado, Satoshi Amagai, Mark Nielsen, Dennis Liu and Steve Palumbi

Corals are a quirky species — they’re invertebrate animals built out of genetically identical polyps, which collect together into massive underwater reef structures. For food, they rely on a symbiotic relationship with algae, which make sugar and nutrients through photosynthesis.

This video, created by a team at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, envisions a reef seen from miles above the planet. Then, it zooms in to the microscopic structures where the algae live.

The animation details how rising ocean temperatures can prompt coral to eject the algae — a process known as coral bleaching. Without their symbiotic partners, bleached coral slowly die.

Video icon and right arrow with word Video

Honorable Mention

two insects
Entomology Animated. Episode 1: Rifa madness
Credit: Eric Keller

Engineers use origami principles to design spacecraft solar panels and other devices that flex or unfurl, as in this video by a lab at Brigham Young University. Larry Howell, the team leader, says the work is just plain fun.

“There’s so much potential for applications. These things can really make a difference.”

Video icon and right arrow with word Video

Lamar Smith’s lame attempt to justify his controversial NSF investigation – NATURE. #science

Representative Lamar Smith has been waging a controversial investigation into science that is funded by the NSF and the science review process at NSF. This week, Smith fires back at a recent article in Nature about his investigation.

As chairman of the US House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, I do not believe that you do justice to the committee’s efforts to better understand how the US National Science Foundation (NSF) spends US$7 billion dollars of taxpayers’ money (Nature 5191381392015).

The NSF is not “caught between the scientists it serves and the lawmakers it answers to”. The money is not the NSF’s or the scientists’: it is the people’s. Congress has a responsibility to ensure that the money is spent wisely and in the national interest.

Smith’s weak defense of his witch hunt highlights that taxpayers can’t trust politicians to judge what qualifies as wise spending when it comes to science. And I certainly doubt their ability to judge what science is in the national interest. At a time when many politicians prove their complete lack of understanding of science, or openly ignore, deny, or refute science, how can anyone trust them to judge science in an unbiased, or even semi-educated way????

LIVE Budget 2016 coverage via ScienceInsider

The Obama administration today presents its budget request to Congress for the 2016 fiscal year, which begins in October. ScienceInsider will be tracking the numbers and providing analysis all day. Check back frequently!

A first look at the numbers from the budget request:
  • Would provide $146 billion for research and development, 5.5% above 2015 levels. R&D includes basic and applied research and technology development programs.
  • $32.8 billion for basic research, a 3% increase.
  • $34.1 billion for applied research, a 4% increase.
  • $31.3 billion for NIH, roughly a 3% increase.
  • 5.2% increase for NSF, up $379 million to $7.724 billion.
  • Repeats call to make R&D tax credit permanent.
  • Repeats last’s years request for $325 million for ARPA-E; Congress gave just $275 million.
  • Requests $450 million for USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative; current budget is $325 million.
  • $71.3 billion for overall Pentagon R&D, 9% increase.
  • $3 billion request for DARPA, $101 million over 2015.

Check out the full budget here

And also, check out the press release from NSF regarding the budget.


Same problem, different day #PostDocStruggle

Summarized in Science Careers, a new report on the postdoctoral training system covers familiar ground.  As we’ve mentioned before (here), the current set-up for training postdocs is incredibly flawed.  The report, out in the U.S. National Acadamies press, highlights similar topics:

The postdoc experience in the United States continues to need significant reform, the report states. Only a minority of the postdocs working in university labs have opportunities to receive high-quality training from eminent senior researchers, develop their own research ideas, gain experience in lab management and grant writing, acquire contacts and a publication record and, ultimately, move into a tenure-track position at a research institution.

For the majority of postdocs, however—those supported by professors’ research grants and working in university laboratories—the postdoc years generally do not provide high-quality mentoring, movement toward scientific independence, adequate compensation and recognition, or guidance toward establishing a permanent career.

The report proposes several methods to improve the system, some of which have been suggested various times before:

  • “Postdoctoral appointments for a given postdoctoral researcher should total no more than 5 years in duration, barring extraordinary circumstances. This maximum term should include cumulative postdoctoral research experience, though extensions may be granted in extraordinary circumstances (e.g. family leave, illness).”
  • “The title of ‘postdoctoral researcher’ should be applied only to those people who are receiving advanced training in research. When the appointment period is completed, the postdoctoral researchers should move on to a permanent position externally or be transitioned internally to a staff position with a different and appropriate designation and salary.”
  • “Host institutions and mentors should, beginning at the first year of graduate school, make graduate students aware of the wide variety of career paths available for Ph.D. recipients, and explain that postdoctoral positions are intended only for those seeking advanced research training. The postdoctoral position should not be viewed by graduate students or principal investigators as the default step after the completion of doctoral training.”
  • “The NIH [National Institutes of Health] should raise the NRSA [National Research Service Award]postdoctoral starting salary to $50,000 (2014 dollars), and adjust it annually for inflation. Postdoctoral salaries should be appropriately higher where regional cost of living, disciplinary norms, and institutional or sector salary scales dictate higher salaries. In addition, host institutions should provide benefits to postdoctoral researchers that are appropriate to their level of experience and commensurate with benefits given to equivalent full-time employees … [including] health insurance, family and parental leave, and access to a retirement plan.”
  • “Host institutions should create provisions that encourage postdoctoral researchers to seek advice, either formally or informally, from multiple advisors, in addition to their immediate supervisor. Host institutions and funding agencies should take responsibility for ensuring the quality of mentoring through evaluation of, and training programs for, the mentors.”
  • “Every institution that employs postdoctoral researchers should collect data on the number of currently employed postdoctoral researchers and where they go after completion of their research training, and should make this information publicly available. The National Science Foundation should serve as the primary curator for establishing and updating a database system that tracks postdoctoral researchers, including non-academic and foreign-trained postdoctoral researchers.”

The proposals in the new report have all been made before. But circumstances have changed, and awareness and acceptance of the issues addressed in the report have never been higher. Whether these recommendations will have a greater effect than in the past remains to be seen.

As a future postdoc, all I can say is PREACH!

Get out and vote! #science #climate #GMO #vaccines #NIH #NSF

Get out and vote today!

[tweet https://twitter.com/CauseScience1/status/529722763519750144]

GOP Rep. Lamar Smith is beginning a McCarthy-esque witch hunt of NSF funded #science


Ok, so the title is a bit over the top, but Republican Lamar Smith is certainly eroding the peer-review process at the National Science Foundation (NSF), which serves as the model for almost all science review. Tim McDonnell at Slate summarizes how Smith, the chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, is investigating the NSF review and grant process (the Slate story also links to a great article in Science about the same topic). It is a bit disgusting that Lamar Smith and his investigative team, think they are better judges of what science is worthy for NSF funding than the expert scientists who initially reviewed the grant applications. This is highlighted in the amazing written correspondence between Smith and NSF Director France Córdova that is linked in the Slate article (definitely worth a read). Or as McDonnell writes:

The letters over the past few months between Smith and NSF Director France Córdova, an astrophysicist and former president of Purdue University, are a great new entry in the annals of government scientists explaining Science 101 to Republican congressmen.

This is a horrifying turn of events for government funded science. And McDonnell hits the nail on the head with his conclusion.

In other words, basic science shouldn’t be judged by how closely it hews to a predetermined, profitable advance. The Large Hadron Collider probably isn’t ever going to do much for the U.S. economy, but that doesn’t mean it’s not in the “national interest” for us to understand the basic physics of the universe. Sometimes, even research on the mechanics of corkscrew-shaped duck penises can be a worthy investment of taxpayer dollars.

Good news for scientists and engineers with PhDs!

For a refreshing change of pace, despite the negative (but true) outlook for a career in the sciences, NSF reports that in the year 2013, unemployment for doctoral scientists and engineers is BELOW the national average.

The 2013 unemployment rate for individuals with research doctoral degrees in science, engineering and health (SEH) fields was one-third the rate for the general population aged 25 and older–2.1 percent versus 6.3 percent.

A glimmer of hope for those invested in scientific research and progress.

Killer Asteroid Project: Find out what an asteroid impact near you would destroy! #science


Following Earth’s close encounter with an Asteroid on Sunday, the Daily Mail reports on the Killer Asteroid Project, which is in part funded by NSF and NASA. The highlight of the project is a interactive interface using Google Earth to show you the radius of damage caused by different sized comets anywhere in the world. It also breaks up the radius into different levels of damage, from ‘first degree burns’ and ‘clothing ignites’ to ‘knocks over steel buildings’. Check out the interface here.

Drop a Rock on Someone

This piece uses Google Earth along with an impact effects calculator to show you the damage that would be caused by different sized asteroids and comets. You can pick a city, enter an address, or just let it hit somewhere at random.