A Glimpse Inside Young Neurons Wins 2019 UCSF Sci-Resolution Image Contest

By Nicoletta Lanese

Many scientists work in microscopic worlds of florescent color and striking visuals that few others get to see.   

UC San Francisco’s Sci-Resolution science imagery competition puts the beauty of science on display. This year’s competition received over 210 entries from more than 50 labs across campus, giving viewers a glimpse into the daily work of UCSF scientists.

The images reveal the wiry scaffolding of nerve cells stained bright green and purple; the internal structure of lungs resembling bunches of glowing grapes; and star-like cells called astrocytes stretching to envelop growing neurons. On their own, the images are stunning to behold. In the lab, they serve as a source of discovery.               

The winners of the 2019 Sci-Resolution competition captured art and science in a single snapshot:

First Place - $1,000 prize
Torsten Wittmann, PhD: “Cytoskeleton in neurons differentiating from induced pluripotent stem cells”

Microscopic image of neuron cytoskeleton

Second Place - $500 prize
Chang Xie, PhD: “Branching pattern of embryonic lung”

Microscopic image of embryonic lung

Third Place - $250 prize
Phi Nguyen: “A bed of astrocytes ensheathing embryonic neurons”

Microscopic image of astrocytes ensheathing embryonic neurons

People’s Choice - $250 prize
Wei Yu, MD, PhD: “A pair of E16 kidneys from hoxb7/eGFP transgenic mouse”

Microscopic image of mouse embryonic kidneys

Judge’s Honorable Mention
Xiaoyu Shi, PhD: “Nuclear lamina and nuclear pores of a mammalian nucleus”

Microscopic image of nuclear lamina and pores

The judges panel selected three top images and an honorable mention based on their superb technical quality and visual artistry, as well as their scientific impact. The judges for this year's competition were Adam Gazzaley, MD, PhD, professor of neurology; DeLaine Larsen, PhD, director of the UCSF Nikon Imaging Lab; Ernesto Diaz-Flores, PhD, assistant professor of pediatrics; and Jordan Briscoe, staff research associate at the UCSF Biological Imaging Development Center.

The People’s Choice winner was selected by public online voting. The contest was open to all UCSF faculty, staff and trainees.

The first-place image, submitted by Torsten Wittmann, PhD, an associate professor of cell and tissue biology in the School of Dentistry, depicts the cytoskeleton of neurons developing from induced pluripotent stem cells. Thin cytoskeleton filaments, depicted in green, can be seen reaching out like hands from elongating processes. These processes are supported by microtubules, marked in purple, which later help to shuttle materials through the cell. The judges said, “This image brings a new view on the structure of a neuron,” and commended  its fine detail and subtlety in the staining. Wittmann also won the inaugural Sci-Resolution contest in 2015 with an image of endothelial cells.   

Chang Xie, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar in the School of Medicine, snagged second place for his colorful image of a pair of developing lungs in a 15-day-old mouse embryo. Though captured in two dimensions, the image beautifully highlights the organ’s 3D structure. Phi Nguyen, a graduate student in the lab of Anna Molofsky, MD, PhD, won the third-place prize for his gray-scale image of twisting, turning astrocytes. The judges commented that the intricate image “entangles your eye” and “presents a view of these less appreciated cells and how they support the development of the brain.”

The judges gave an honorable mention to Xiaoyu Shi, an associate specialist in the Department of Pharmaceutical Chemistry, for her image of nuclear lamina and nuclear pores. The judges were impressed by her “surprising and creative” light microscopy technique that revealed the details of a mammalian nucleus.

The playful entry that earned the People’s Choice award, submitted by Wei Yu, MD, PhD, a specialist in the lab of Wendell Lim, PhD, in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Pharmacology, might not look like an anatomical structure at first glance. What might appear to be two ladybugs engaged in a staring contest are actually a pair of kidneys inside a transgenic mouse embryo. The entry won with 194 out of 1,498 votes from the public.