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The Data and Scientists Behind Beautiful Images

As Nancy Speck, PhD, chair of the department of Cell and Developmental Biology, mentioned in a past blog post on the annual Perelman School of Medicine Art in Science Competition, “anyone can generate data, but not everyone can make pictures.” At the time, she was commenting on Amanda Yzaguirre, a graduate student in her lab, who is a previous and current winner of this contest. This arty axiom holds true for many students and researchers in the biomedical labs on the Penn campus – that there is an intriguing tale behind each image.  

The winning entries in this year’s competition (now in its 4th year), which is sponsored by the Office of the Executive Vice Dean and Chief Scientific Officer, can be seen on the Office’s site. Check out the winners and descriptions of their work below.

Art in Science Tischfield May 20161st Place: Graduate Student Category
David Tischfield & Alex Rohacek
/Anderson & Epstein Labs
“Paintfill of the Inner Ear”
David Tischfield, an MD/PhD student in the lab of CHOP and Penn researcher Stewart Anderson, MD, together with graduate student Alex Rohacek with Doug Epstein’s lab in the department of Genetics, submitted this striking image that looks different from the standard colorized images of cells and tissues. This “paintfill” of an embryonic mouse inner ear was produced to see if this part of the rodent’s hearing system formed properly. “It’s basically a negative cast of the inner ear made by filling the closed system of canals with White-Out,” Tischfield said. In this case, this is an image of a normally structured mouse interior. The team used this method to determine if the head formed properly in this mouse to match it to behavioral and genetic results while studying the neurodevelopment associated with schizophrenia genes.

Art in Science Blog post Struzyna Wired2nd Place: Graduate Student Category
Laura Struzyna
/Cullen Lab

This stunning image that Laura Struzyna, a doctoral student in the lab of D. Kacy Cullen, PhD, an assistant professor of Neurosurgery, dubbed "Wired" was taken using a confocal microscope and the colors are made with multiple layers of labelled antibodies, which are then compiled for the three-dimensional effect. What you see in the image is a cell culture of embryonic rat dorsal root ganglia sensory neurons (lower left) and smaller clusters of motor neurons that control movement (right half). Working in a basic neurosurgical science lab, she creates tissue-engineered nerve grafts to one day repair nerve damage in patients. One question she is working on asks if regenerating axons better track, or grow, along sensory or motor axons. 

Art Science blog post Embryonic Head Vasculature May 163rd Place: Graduate Student Category
Amanda Yzaguirre
/Speck Lab
“Embryonic Head Vasculature”

Sixth-year PhD student Amanda Yzaguirre studies how blood cells develop in embryos. These cells arise from a different precursor cell than most other cells. It is also an ephemeral cell type, making it harder to study. These special cells can be found in the large arteries and head blood vessels of mouse embryos. To locate where these fleeting cells live, she immunostained an embryonic 10.5-day-old mouse head that had been made transparent using a special clearing agent. From there she made a “Z-stack” image by focusing a laser scanning confocal microscope on different layers within the head every five microns. The “Z-stack” is about 100 of these individual layers. "This image is a map of the mouse head to find out where these special cells reside," she said. 

Art in Science Yaniv M Elkouby - Journey May 2016Winner: Postdoctoral Fellow Category
Yaniv M. Elkouby
/Mullins Lab

Yaniv M. Elkouby, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Mary Mullins, PhD, a professor of Cell band Developmental Biology, studies early oocyte (egg cell) differentiation and ovarian development in zebrafish to advance understanding of reproduction, fertility, and ovarian cancer. The vertebrate egg cell is polarized along an axis during its differentiation. This is key to embryonic development as the egg axis sets up the primary body organization of the early embryo, that is the patterning of cells along back-to-belly, head-to-tail, or left-to-right. The egg axis is established by the Balbiani body (Bb), a universal oocyte structure composed mainly of mRNP granules and mitochondria. "How the Bb forms and how its position is determined was unknown," said Elkouby. "We traced the events that initiate Bb formation in the zebrafish oocyte to the onset of meiosis." At this early stage, a conserved asymmetry arises where all telomeres are clustered on one side of the nuclear envelope and the looping ends of chromosomes face the opposing side. This configuration is called the chromosomal bouquet. Bb formation and localization was found to be aligned with the bouquet configuration through a cellular organizer that coordinates formation of both structures and couples meiosis with oocyte patterning. While the biological functions of the Bb may differ between species, its mechanism of formation is probably conserved. The aptly named "Journey" image shows bouquet stage oocytes at the center (DNA in blue, telomeres in red) with a circle of non-polarized oogonia around them (Bb precursors in green, DNA blue). The next circle shows polarized oocytes with Bb precursors (green) localized specifically around the centrosome (red), which marks the telomere cluster of the bouquet. During subsequent stages of cell differentiation, Bb precursors (green) aggregate in a nuclear cleft (nuclear envelope in red) that gradually rounds out and gives rise to the mature Bb.

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