The Best Scientific Image Of The Year Was A Hand-Painted Watercolor

A renaissance in scientific illustration is afoot.

Stunning. Beautiful. Elegant. These are not descriptors you usually hear applied to deadly pathogens–much less a virus that has killed thousands in the past year alone. Except in the case of the doctors and researchers who judge the prestigious Wellcome Image Awards.


Now in its 15th year, the awards judge thousands of scientific images drawn from all over the world against each other, pitting imagery like an electron microscopy image of a stem cell drawn from a human hip against, say, a scan of a stroke victim’s blood clot. These images use techniques such as diffusion tensor tractography, which watches how water molecules move inside a living brain to image what’s happening inside, or optical coherence tomography, which lets doctors take photos of the inside of an eye using lasers.

Yet this year, the winner of the entire competition shunned the high-tech imaging tools used by most competitors. To beat out images using the most expensive, cutting-edge imaging technology available today, the winner–David Goodsell–used watercolor and ink.

Goodsell is an associate professor of molecular biology at the Scripps Research Institute, and he’s a bit like the Brunelleschi of the scientific visualization world. Just as the Renaissance artist was the first to use linear perspective, Goodsell has pioneered a new way to depict the rich molecular world that’s invisible to the naked eye. After getting his start modeling 3-D visualizations of cells in the 1980s, Goodsell ran up against a surprising problem: the structures he wanted to visualize were too complex to model with a computer program.

“As a postdoc, I was challenging myself to illustrate bigger molecular landscapes that were simply too complex to be computationally modeled,” Goodsell told me when in 2012. Instead, he tapped into his background in fine art, establishing a low-tech way to express, with immaculate scientifically accuracy, the inner worlds of viruses, cells, and proteins that make up our biology.

In his winning image, Goodsell depicts a microscopic particle of Ebola sliced down the middle to reveal its vibrant inner workings. This is actually a lot more complicated than it sounds–as Science points out, figuring out the exact mechanism by which Ebola thrives has been a significant problem for scientists trying to stop it, because it acts so fast. Here’s what you’re seeing: the Ebola particle has hijacked a membrane from a patient’s host cell–depicted in pink–and put out studs of infected proteins on its surface–seen here in turquoise. These studs are what infects other nearby cells. The genetic blueprint of the cell is seen in yellow, while the green coating and blue strings support the overall structure. “I think they give a nice intuitive feel for how crowded cells are, and the complexity of cells,” Goodsell says in a video about the award.

The painting was created as part of an ongoing project where Goodsell illustrates molecules in the RCSB Protein Data Bank to make them more accessible to students who might not otherwise venture into the archive, as he explains in the video. He calls the project “one of the great joys of my life right now.”


“It has that direct scientific application, utility to a bunch of different groups of people,” he adds. It’s a lovely image on multiple levels–from its scientific accuracy to the sheer visual symmetry of the thing–and in the end, its utility is really why it’s beautiful.

See more winning work from the Wellcome Image Awards in our slide show above.

All Images: courtesy Wellcome Image Awards

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.