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Behind the Image

“Because it is artistic and scientific at the same time, it can make a great ambassador between the research scientist and the general public.”
– James Hayden


Prostate Cancer Tree
James Hayden, RBP, FBCA

Please describe your primary line of work.

I am Managing Director of a Microscopy and Imaging Core Facility inside the Wistar Institute, an NCI Basic Cancer Research Center, located in Philadelphia, PA. The Core provides microscopy and imaging support for approximately 35 internal laboratories working on mechanisms of cancer development, immunology, infectious diseases and vaccine development. We partner directly with researchers to provide access, assistance and training on standard and advanced optical imaging systems including widefield, confocal and 2-photon microscopy. We specialize in complex, multimodal imaging experiments including FRAP, FRET and 6D projects using 3D tracking. We also support whole-body, small animal imaging, traditional photographic projects and image analysis solutions that derive quantitative data from all of our imaging systems.

How long have you been taking scientific images through the microscope?

I have been involved in photomicrography since college – 36 years.

What first sparked your interest in scientific photography?

When I started my undergraduate education in biology, my advisor introduced me to the microscope and encouraged me to combine my ongoing interest in photography with my growing interest in science and biology. He showed me a postcard about the Nikon Small World competition which inspired my dual interests in art and science. I made it a goal at that moment to get involved in that kind of work.

Do your images tend to focus toward a specific subject matter or theme? If so, Why?

On the scientific side, many of the specimens I work with come from current experiments that my clients are working on. I am either trying to help them get good images for publication, or they let me borrow the samples to experiment with. A majority of my images are now based on cancer research, such as this image, which comes from work on the importance of mitochondrial function in prostate cancer.

On the artistic side, I look for compositions and unusual juxtapositions that imply different interpretations, like this image that looks like a tree, but still has all of the relevant scientific information about the experiment. I like it when an image can have more than one meaning or use and search for those compositions.

Image Information

Specimen Description

Fluorescently labeled prostate cancer cells showing nuclei (blue), mitochondria (red) and microtubules (green).

What equipment and/or techniques did you use?

The image was captured with a Leica TCS SP5II laser scanning confocal microscope. Six Z steps were acquired, maximum projected, and post-processed in Image J for presentation.

Magnification: Objective Lens / Total Magnification

Original magnification was 126X using a 63X objective with 2X digital zoom

What is the subject matter of your winning image?

The cells themselves are cultured prostate cancer cells, treated to analyze morphology of mitochondria and their related dynamics. There are 2 cells in the image, each with a different characterization: the “tree” showing elongated forms and the “ground” showing very short mitochondrial structure.

How does this subject matter relate to you either personally or professionally?

Every researcher who comes into our lab has a scientific question and a problem figuring out how to answer it. It is my goal to work with them to best utilize our resources in the way that best answers their questions. Sometimes it is straightforward, but often it is more complicated, especially when it comes to analysis. It is always satisfying when you can come up with an image that not only addresses the scientific question, but does it in an aesthetically pleasing way. These images can then be used in ways beyond strictly documenting something for a publication figure. This image was also made into a 3x3ft canvas print and hangs in the entrance gallery of our institute.

Why did you choose to submit this particular image?

As previously mentioned, the dichotomy of a useful scientific observation paired with the interpretation of seeing a tree in the image makes it intriguing. It is a lot like looking for familiar shapes in the clouds.

What do you think makes this image important/significant or interesting?

It’s all about the mitochondria. The lab this research came from made some very important findings relating to the importance of mitochondrial dynamics in cancer development. The micrograph is a good representative image showing the morphological differences in one field of view.

Can you elaborate on any special techniques and/or challenges faced in creating this photomicrograph?

Beyond the usual challenges of avoiding fluorescence bleaching and signal overlap/bleedthrough, this particular image had a big problem with dynamic range of the signals. The stringy mitochondria were very weak, whereas the compact ones were very bright. Adjusting the levels to best show the morphology without introducing visual artifact was difficult. The original was captured at high bit depth, and the midtone values had to be carefully adjusted to display all of the required information. It should be noted that adjustments of this type are acceptable when not affecting quantitative measurements or misrepresenting the visual results of the experiment but should be noted when the image is published.

Why did you enter the BioImages competition? What do you think of the competition?

I think competitions of this sort are a great way to bring the more arcane aspects of scientific imaging down to a plane that can be appreciated on a variety of levels. You don’t have to understand what a mitochondrion is to appreciate an image like this. Because it is artistic and scientific at the same time, it can make a great ambassador between the research scientist and the general public. This image could be used to illustrate a general cancer topic, a specific prostate cancer topic, or something even more specific, with it’s nod to the mitochondria. I also remember my early days in microscopy and the inspiration I received from images like this. It is satisfying to be able to return the favor.