NSF International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge

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2012 banner for the NSF "scivis" challenge, featuring the winners from the year before


The NSF International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge (or "sciviz" for short) is an annual science art competition which anyone can enter, so long as the artwork has some substantial science behind it. The competition is hosted by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Science, with winning entries posted in Science Magazine as the prize. The competition started in 2003, but as of 2011 there are now five different categories, as listed below.


  1. Photography - can be an image taken on a camera or microscope, although you are allowed to alter it in software to some extent
  2. Illustrations - can be a traditional or computer-assisted illustration produced to conceptualize the unseen or recreate an object, but must not contain text
  3. Informational Posters and Graphics - contains text and any number of of photos/illustrations, just as a poster would - although don't expect to win with a huge poster with masses of text. The winner in 2011 was a cartoon by the author of PhD Comics!
  4. Interactive Games - that's right, educational science computer games can be entered! The winner in 2011 was the citizen science game FoldIt
  5. Videos - should be less than 5 minutes and can be almost anything

You can see extra requirements and examples of winning entires from previous years here. Winners from 2011 only are here. The first three categories do overlap a bit, but there isn't any strict rule against including the same photo you submit as a photograph as a poster (provided you change it significantly), or even turning the same pool of work into a video if that applies.


Unlike other science/art competitions, where there's a money prize, the prize for winning scivis is to have your entry and a small explanation published in Science Magazine. I personally think this is a really excellent prize - it's about prestige rather than cash - and past winners have commented at the great opportunities that have arisen after publication. Although the winner is featured most prominently, a number of runners up and "popular vote" may also appear.

One of the entries I submitted into scivis in 2011 which made it to the finals


  • Must be your work (or a collection of willing collaborators) and not violate any copyright.
  • You can enter up to once in each category.

Listed above are just the most important rules. You can see the full list of official rules here. You should also know that each entry must be submitted with a small write up including an "entry title", a "description" and a few paragraphs about the scientific value, "visual impact" and "freshness / originality" of the entry (see example). Each section has a limit of about 1000 characters (just a few lines), making it essential to be concise - no matter how complex and/or how many years of work your entry may (or may not) represent. Writing this can be a bit tricky, but it pays to keep it pretty simple such that your own mother might understand the science and educational and/or scientific value of what the image/video/game represents. If you don't effectively communicate this, it won't matter how pretty your entry is!

Submission and Judging

  • It may vary year to year, but submission generally open around May 30, stays open till September, takes a few months to judge and finalists announced in Science magazine early the following year (although finalists should hopefully be contacted by December).
  • Entires that don't meet all conditions are rejected outright.
  • Entries are judged based on "visual appeal" and "freshness" (plus several other factors) by your write up, by a small panel of anonymous scientists and engineers. Your write up and art is judged together.
  • In the past there have been 10 finalists per categories, of which one usually wins and two are runners up... but not always. At the judges discretion they may decide there is no winner or shared winner for a particular category and a particular year.

Popular Vote

In addition to the main judging, in 2011 they introduced a "popular vote" prize, where all 50 finalists (10 finalists x 5 categories) were posted to a website and people could vote for a couple of short months after finalists were announced. The winner in each category (the entry with the most votes) was also mentioned in Science, although not as prominently. As the first year, there were a few issues, but the main one was that there were relatively few voters and almost all of them (I'm sure) were biased - it turned more into who had the most friends. This is good for helping finalists "spread the word" to their friends, but in 2012 they'll hopefully improve on this system so that non-biased votes are lured to the site during the voting period.

My Entries in 2011

I personally highly encourage people to enter this competition - hence me writing a wiki page on it. On this page I also wanted to document my entires I submitted. In 2011 I managed to submit three entries:

Title Category & Result Description

Rapid Visual Inventory & Comparison of Complex 3D Structures

Scivis rapid visual inventory.jpg

Video Category

Winner + Popular vote

This video shows several "pancreatic beta cells" imaged by "whole cell electron tomography". You'll notice each cell is very crowded - hence we developed the idea of representing the cell in a way where it's easy to do visual comparison on the size and number of compartments. It's an entry Graham rushed together and rendered very last minute - hence the youtube video he entered here is actually pretty pixelated - but we were lucky in the judges loved the idea and the video itself.

Authors: Graham Johnson, Andrew Noske, Brad Marsh

This is an entry submitted by my good friend Graham Johnson, who wrote all the text and created the movie. My contribution was "reconstructing" the model you can see in the image and my old PhD supervisor, Brad Marsh, did the cell preparation and helped come up with the concept of a Simplified Geometric Abstraction for cells. Graham has actually won this competiton before too - back in 2005 (read article).


Scivis neuron.png

Photography Category

Finalists only

This image represents a rendering of a brain cell which was imaged using a relatively new technique called 3D Serial Block-Face Scanning Electron Microscopy (SBFSEM) and then 3D image stack traced on every slice - a process called "segmentation" - to produce a 3D model of the cell inside. SBFSEM has actually been around a while, but only recently has a really good system called "3View" become available and lets us acquire fairly huge (many GB) images of cells very quickly. Tracing it is the hard part! Electron microscopes can help produce images with much higher resolution and detail than most light microscopes.

Authors: Eric Bushong, Andrew Noske

In this work, it was Eric Bushong who did all the major work - preparing the cell, imaging it in the microscope and the slow process of segmentation. All I did really is make his 3D model pretty and yet my name appears at the top. Doesn't quite seem fair, but that's the way this competition works unfortunately, is only one person submits, and unfortunately it seems to drop some names off the form, hence I changed the thumbnail image to show Eric's name.

Separation of a Cell

Scivis seperation of a cell.png

Illustration Category

Finalists + Popular vote

This image represents a cell undergoing "cell division", but more importantly the protein shown flying out of the cell is called "miniSOG" (Shu et al., 2011) and represents a pretty new and exciting imaging protein which works a bit like green fluorescent protein in that it can target a protein and show up as luminescent under light microscopy, but can also be stained dark in electron microscope images (which is very exciting). You can see a full explanation in this youtube video I made after the entry:

Authors: Andrew Noske, Tom Deerinck, Clodaugh O'Shea, Horng Ou

In this image I did the segmentation (tracing images to produce a 3D model) and rendering (making a pretty image), but it was Thomas Deerinck from my instutue at NCMIR who acquired the images using a 3View SBFSEM. In terms of scientific experimenting, it was Horng Ou and Clodaugh O'Shea from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies who did the heavy lifting and helped attached the molecule you see to the cells chromosomes (think DNA), and I was lucky enough to become involved in what's been a wonderful collaboration between our two institutes.

From these three entries, all three made it to finalists and the video won the main prize. Needless to say I was incredibly happy! This result might cause you to think "maybe there weren't many entries". In fact there are always lots of entries, but fortunately for us not many people had seen these types of images - detailed electron microscopy models of entire cells (not just part of cells) in all three entries - and so I believe that's why we did so well... we were "fresh" and judges saw the value in "Whole Cell Tomography"!

You'll also noticed above that all three entries I submitted with different people. All these names appeared in the science article fortunately... but in the entry itself it's the person who submits the entry (typically the artist) who seem to get credit. It seems a little unfair, but hopefully they'll rectify soon - in an art/science competition where one person did the art it's a bit tricky to decide who the entry "belongs" to most. It might be the artists art, but it's the scientist's science.... and science typically takes a lot longer (often years) than drawing, snapping or rendering and image/movie!


For my own reference, I've kept some articles / links that appeared after the winners were announced:


While there isn't any monetary prize, I highly recommend this competition to all scientists. It's easy to enter with an online form and only a few paragraphs to write, so if you have an image, photograph, game or video representing something new, fresh and funky you have nothing to lose by entering and a decent chance of winning. Best of luck!


    Andrew Noske


Acknowledgements: Rich Stoner from UCSD for pointing out this competition, so that I could enter! Beyond just recommending the competition, Rich also discovered some of the articles above. Also a big thanks to Graham Johnson for taking one of my cells and turning it into a winning animation.  :)