UC San Diego Library Launches Art of Science Contest To Highlight Researchers’ Most Beautiful Images

On February 22, the University of California San Diego (UCSD) Library launched the inaugural Art of Science Contest, inviting UCSD researchers to submit the most beautiful image “that explains their work in a way that is both engaging and accessible to non-scientists.” The contest runs through March 21; voting will take place from March 29–April 18, with the winning images announced on May 3.

abstract cell microscopy image, green shape on varied maroon background
Microscopy product ID: 65, Cell Centered Database Collection
Image courtesy of Eric A. Bushong, Maryann Martone, Mark H. Ellisman
NOTE: All images shown are pre-existing items in the UCSD repository, not contest submissions

On February 22, the University of California San Diego (UCSD) Library launched the inaugural Art of Science Contest, inviting UCSD researchers to submit the most beautiful image “that explains their work in a way that is both engaging and accessible to non-scientists.” The contest runs through March 21; voting will take place from March 29–April 18, with the winning images announced on May 3.

All UCSD and UCSD-affiliated undergraduate, graduate, postdoctoral, and faculty researchers are eligible to submit images created by any imaging technique, including modeling and simulation, a combined image, or photographs of instrumentation or other objects used in scientific investigation. Images may be modified to enhance their aesthetic. Images must be the result of original research conducted at, or in affiliation with, UCSD.

Judges will select one winner from each of the participant categories: undergraduate, graduate, postdoc, and faculty, each of whom will receive a $75 prepaid Visa card. There can be up to three honorable mentions with no monetary prize attached. Voting will then be opened up to the general public, and the crowd-nominated favorite will receive a $75 prepaid Visa card as well. Contest winners will be invited to submit a short video recording of themselves discussing their work. The winning images will be exhibited in Starlight, the library’s digital exhibit application, and in UCSD’s iconic Geisel Library. The inaugural Art of Science contest is supported by the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.



enlarged photo of bee inside flower with pollen
Data from: Urbanization-induced habitat fragmentation erodes multiple components of temporal diversity in a Southern California native bee assemblage
Image courtesy of Keng-Lou James Hung and David A. Holway

The idea for the competition originally sprang from ongoing efforts to publicize the library’s data management services. While the UCSD Research Data Curation Program (RDCP)—with a repository hosting more than 28 terabytes of data from disciplines including archeology, chemistry, climate science, structural engineering, and ocean science—is known and used throughout the school’s large research community, the Research Data Curation team is always looking for ways to further publicize the program.

“We have consultations with researchers, and often the first question we ask is how did you find us—and usually they say they Googled ‘data curation at UCSD,’” said Metadata Librarian Abby Pennington, creator of the contest. “We want to build more connections with more departments and researchers on the campus.”

As part of those initial consultations, data management librarians ask researchers for an image to accompany their data set. “Some of the images that researchers create to accompany and communicate their research is visually striking,” said Pennington, such as photos of the vibrantly colored dyes used in cell microscopy, or lidar—a method for measuring distances using laser light—with colors and shapes indicating different atmospheric changes, or creative, eye-catching graphs. “So it occurred to me that it would be great to showcase this.”

When Pennington discovered that fellow UC system member University of California at Santa Barbara, as well as Princeton University and Caltech, have hosted Art of Science competitions, she was inspired to create a similar project at UCSD. It would be “an amazing way to showcase more research-related images, have some fun—especially during this time—while bringing people to our research data curation website, and planting the seed of the library as their campus partner for data curation,” she told LJ.

The project met with broad enthusiasm. “When Abby brought this up it was so easy to support it, because it exactly the kind of thing we should be doing,” said David Minor, program director for research data curation.

“We're glad to highlight the library's role in the stewardship of research data,” said Roger Smith, associate university librarian for scholarly resources and services. That stewardship, he noted, “is not only the storage of bits of data, but the actual integration of how content has meaning, and has impact, in the discipline for which it's most readily apparent.” UCSD Library administration greenlighted the Art of Science contest in July 2020.

After looking into possible platforms able to display entries and support both closed judging and an open vote, Pennington chose PollUnit. She then approached potential judges, initially asking liaison librarians for leads. She was looking for faculty and others in the sciences, visual arts, and at least a few crossovers with work taking place in both areas. She assembled a team of nine faculty members, senior academic staff, and administrators, whose names will be announced when the submission period ends.

Once the judges have picked their favorites, voting will be opened up to the general public, on and off campus; everyone interested in weighing in can vote once.



abstract atmospheric image, bright green ovals with dark centers scattered around on dark field, connected by red squiggly lines
Data from: Carbonic Anhydrases, EPF2 and a Novel Protease Mediate CO2 Control of Stomatal Development
Image courtesy of Cawas B. Engineer, Majid Ghassemian, Jeffrey C. Anderson, Scott C. Peck, Honghong Hu, and Julian I. Schroeder 

What constitutes a beautiful scientific image? “We have pretty loose guidelines,” said Pennington. In addition to “aesthetic excellence,” judges are advised to look for “something that really wows you, something that really catches your eye, something that is visually interesting.” Leaving the criteria broad should help keep the process fun and interesting for the volunteer judges, she added.

Images should also engage the viewer while conveying the concepts they illustrate—and developing appealing, easy-to-grasp representations of their work can help researchers do more than win a gift card. “We've seen with the pandemic that it's really important that researchers communicate science in an accessible way to the public,” said Pennington. “Because you'll talk to researchers sometimes and they’ll say, ‘I talk about my research and after a few minutes people's eyes start glazing over.’ So this is good practice, I think, and it's a fun way to engage at any level.”

“This kind of thinking is an important initiative for our campus and our library,” Minor told LJ. “We have a number of areas on our campus that deal with not just the pandemic, but things like climate change, important societal changes. And I know there's a big struggle to communicate what are often very complex theories and research.”

“An effort like this adds layers of meaning to the research data, and to research in general at the university,” added Smith. “It broadens not only the appeal but the interest in the research enterprise.”

Minor also looks forward to giving researchers free rein to showcase their art. “It could be decades of work that they've done to get to this [point], the depth of knowledge there—how do you begin to represent that in a little square on a website? You’ll really see the wheels start to turn.”

Virtual visitors to the RDPC, whether researchers submitting artwork or curious members of the public, will find a redesigned website, which underwent a revamp in fall 2020. “We started working as team to redesign the website to be more eye catching, to have simple text, so if [researchers] want to share their data they know which button to push and it will take them to the right page,” explained Pennington. University marketing for the contest, as well as the PollUnit platform, will point to the new website, and when anyone submits or votes on an image, the “thank you” message will include a link to the site. Submitted images will be deposited in the UCSD Research Data Collections repository.

While there is no campus-wide mandate to deposit data there, noted Minor, “they have to put it somewhere. So anything we can do to make it easy, attractive, understandable, let them know we're here.... Any opportunity we can have like this to hang up another banner, put up another shingle, and let people know [about RDCP], is very much a driving point.”

Author Image
Lisa Peet


Lisa Peet is Executive Editor for Library Journal.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing