Procrastination pays off

It’s not everyone who enjoys the complicated theories or the perplexing language of science, but one aspect of science that anyone can enjoy is the spectacular images of life captured through the lens of a microscope. Today’s imaging and visualization techniques allow scientists to not only peer into the microscopic world, but to capture and share the beauty that lies hidden within.

From June through November of this year, travelers from all corners of the world who traverse the corridors at Washington Dulles International Airport have been treated to forty-six of the most stunning images of modern science. What began as an effort to improve the aesthetics of airport corridors and introduce visitors to public art became a public science lesson when the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority’s Arts Program teamed up with the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) and the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB).

Hundreds of scientists heeded the call when the ASCB and NIGMS organized and publicized an image competition and exhibition dubbed “Life: Magnified”. For one Stowers scientist, a heavy experimental workload combined with the time-consuming process of applying for postdoctoral positions, meant the idea of submitting an image had to be placed low on his list of priorities.

Praveen Suraneni, PhD, who completed his graduate degree through the Open University program in the Rong Li Lab at the Stowers Institute and has started postdoctoral training in the Department of Medicine at Northwestern University, explained that on the final day for submissions, a lab mate’s reminder sent him scrambling. To meet the deadline, he had to select among his own images for the one that was “the most visually appealing, but also told a great story.”

Suraneni settled on an image of a fibroblast. While a normal fibroblast, which is a connective tissue cell that is important in wound healing, has smooth edges with properly functioning lamellipodia that motor the cell along, Suraneni found an image of a disabled fibroblast far more striking. His selection lacked a protein necessary for proper development of the cell’s skeletal structure; the result is a cell replete with jagged looking, tentacle-like appendages with no ability for normal cell movement. And with only minutes to spare, Suraneni uploaded his image, went back to his other work and thought little more of the competition.

Imagine his surprise when weeks later, Suraneni was notified that his image had been selected from over 600 others to be one of the forty-six for display. “What an honor! I knew I had a great image,” shares Suraneni, “but I imagined there were lots of great images.” Investigator Rong Li was equally delighted. “These images are so captivating you can’t help but want to know more about them,” she says. “This provides scientists a valuable opportunity to spark interest and educate the public about our work.”

Not only will an estimated 1.5 million people pass by Suraneni’s eye-catching image at Dulles, even more have an opportunity to view it online. Impressed with the images in the Dulles exhibit, NIH Director Francis Collins is also featuring several on his own blog (http://directorsblog.nih.gov/2014/07/).