Picture This – When Image Isn’t Everything

A few days ago whilst browsing on the Guardian’s Science blogs, I was fascinated by the video below, one of the winning entries for the Wellcome Image Awards 2011.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Truely amazing stuff! For those of you scratching your heads wondering what the hell you’re looking at, it’s a mouse embryo, 12 days after conception, imaged using a technique called Optical Projection Topography (OPT). Long story short, to gain 3D projections of objects such as mouse embryos, one could either slice up the object and take an image of each slice, and then reassemble it (like one of those grey 3D puzzles you may have been bought for Christmas), or you’d essentially do the same thing without literally slicing it up, but instead use light focused at different planes through an object; a technique called confocal microscopy. Both methods are a bit time consuming even for objects smaller than a whole mouse embryo, which is roughly the size of a M&M. I don’t know much about OPT (have a read through >this< if you’re interested), but it’s certainly a powerful technique to enable the microscope imaging of a relatively large object such as a 12-day old mouse embryo with such detail.

Clearly the images obtained of this embryo are scientifically fascinating, and I’m sure many discoveries are being made using these images and others gained using similar methods. Even removing it from it’s scientific context, this is visually stunning – though your Gran might not have it on her mantlepiece, and it might make a bit of a dull screensaver. Seeing this image got me thinking about how much of science, in papers, posters and presentations, is related in images and movies. But is it ever the case that ‘pretty pictures’ sometimes distract attention away from ‘real data’? Where is the line between a great scientific image for a ‘purpose’ and a great image just for it’s own sake? And is the latter appropriate in a scientific report/presentation, beyond Image Awards and Photography Competitions?

As a PhD student, I’ve had to take part in departmental-wide student talk ‘symposiums’ and poster competitions, which – on the face of it – are an excellent opportunity to gain experience in presenting your work to a relatively friendly academic audience. However, in reality, such events become for many akin to a boys-locker-room-cock-comparing contest (or, for girls, maybe a boob-comparing contest? is there such a thing? probably not), where you’re acutely aware of how much work everyone else appears to have done (how big their data sets are, how long their observation period lasts, how many time points they did a night, how bushy their Arabidopsis strain is) resulting in potential embarrassment for not having as much data as your peers – oblivious to the reassurance of your supervisors that  everyone’s project is different, and data comes at different times for people, and that is NOTHING TO BE ASHAMED OF IF YOU’RE A LATE BLOOMER – IT’S ALL NORMAL.

Anyway, I’ve often thought that the people whose presentations I enjoy a lot are those with nice images – pretty pictures, if you will. Similarly, if you’re walking around at a conference, you can’t help but be drawn towards a poster with lots of images on it, even if they are just pretty decorative coverings with little rock-hard data within them (or, in the case of some PhD students early on in their project, absolutely no data – I know I’ve done it!). Picking a paper for journal club at the last minute  gets easier when you’ve a paper in your hand with lots of lovely images. Of course everyone, not just scientists, appreciates a nice image, as an admittedly unintentional and wholey unscientific experiment I performed recently revealed to me.

After doing a bit of microscope imaging, I excitedly and somewhat rashly posted up an image on Facebook (that great document of human achievement) of a cell line that I’d generated; briefly, it’s a human embryonic stem cell line which produces a protein associated with a type of leukaemia, complete with nice staining of this protein and the nucleus of the cells, to show the protein was in the nucleus. Within a couple of days I’d managed 10 “Likes” and 19 comments from scientist and non-scientist friends alike, probably a record for any photo I’ve put on the ‘Book. Alright, so it isn’t on the scale of positive feedback one might get for a photo of Justin Bieber, but it’s up there.  The fact that my image was just an image, and didn’t really represent any real ‘results’ – people have been getting cells to express mutant proteins for decades now – was irrelevant; I’m pretty proud of it, and everyone else appeared impressed by what was little more than some red and blue blotches on a black background.

However, I am equally proud of a bar graph I made which quantified different levels of expression of this protein in several cell lines, but I expect if I put that up on Facebook, noone would give a hoot. And who blames them? It is, after all, just a graph – a few vertical bars of varying heights evenly spaced apart. It’s not as interesting as a picture of me drunk pulling a stupid face in some grotty club, or as a LOLcat. Alright, so my bar graph doesn’t really show anything interesting either, but it is often in ‘boring’ figures such as bar graphs, scatter graphs, dot plots, and even the exotically-titled Kaplan-Meier Plot or the amusingly-named Box & Whisker Plot (yep, not as exciting as they sound) where much of the meat of many papers and presentations is found. Disappointingly few LOLcats feature in the pages of Nature and Science, and instead it is rare to see in such high tier journals images not accompanied by additional reams of quantifying data in less picturesque graph format, or a caveat of them being only a ‘representative image’ for illustative purposes only – the closest scientific equilavent of cereal box Serving Suggestions.

Images and pictures in papers are, of course, not pointless. As the mouse embryo above shows, amazing things can now be done with modern microscopy – for a illustrative example fresh in my memory, take Dr Steve Renshaw of University of Sheffield, who recently presented at our department his group’s work which includes the realtime in vivo imaging of immune cells moving towards wound sites in zebrafish. And even when imaging might not one of the enabling technologies of a research project, images are useful to bring context to a story – showing how a mutation can affect the physical development of a frog embryo in addition to plotting out the gene expression changes involved, for an example off the top of my head. In addition, enagagment of the public with science is also very important, and whilst not many people would be wowed by a gene array heat map, it’s the fantastic images such as the ones featured in the Wellcome Images Awards that get and keep the public interested in science, and inspire young people to become the scientists of the future. I commend the Wellcome Image Awards for putting emphasis on the methods used and the reasons why the images were taken – this offers something for everyone, from people who like shiny pretty things, to scientists with a thirst for knowledge, who will undoubtedly also appreciate shiny pretty things anyway; we are human after all.

[As an aside, a picture may be worth a thousand words, but even better is when you can combine images and data to convey information quickly and in an aesthetically pleasing matter, as is constantly being demonstrated in the ‘infographics’ featured on Information is Beautiful – well worth a look.]

To summarise, images and pictures in science communication can be both beautiful and information, but all I’m saying is that pretty pictures aren’t everything. There as much elegance in a bar chart showing data from an experiment conducted with the correct controls, analysed with appropriate statistical test, and followed up with additional confirmatory figures, as there is in any brushstroke in the Mona Lisa.

…*sigh*… aaaahh who am I kidding?! Just look at this crazy sh*t!!

Please please please go to the Wellcome Image Awards 2011 slideshow to see all the images and explanations behind how and why they were taken – they’re all really great. Also check out the Guardian’s very own audio slideshow for Laura Pastorelli’s take on some of her picks of the pic’s.





Filed under musings, procrastination

3 responses to “Picture This – When Image Isn’t Everything

  1. Toby Hodges

    Very nice piece Rich. I love the day the WIA winners are released because I’m sad enough to really want to find out how the images are generated. Pretty pictures are nice too, obviously!
    I think I still prefer the Nature video explaining the central dogma theorem though, perhaps because it appeals to my sci-fi geekiness and my biology geekiness in unison.
    On a more relevant note, that link to an explanation of OPT leaves me wanting somewhat. It doesn’t even begin to explain how they capture fluorescence with any meaningful resolution. Time for some further investigation I think…

    • Thanks Toby – that video is pretty great actually, and a lovely combination of pretty visuals and information!

      Speaking of which, whilst I’ve been catching up on my Journal Alerts emails, I’ve been drawn to “The International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge 2010”, organised by Science and The National Science Foundation. You can have a look at the winning entries, which are divided into catergories of “Illustration”, “Informational Graphics”, “Photography”, and “Non-Interactive Media”, on this slideshow. I particularly like the visualisation of the Arabidopsis Genome, the HIV (it’s pretty clever), and the centipede millirobot.

  2. And another! This time, an exhibit of images from submissions to Cell, sponsored by Zeiss.

    Cell Picture Show

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