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Seeing is Believing: SCELSE Microphotography Imaging Contest 2018
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The aesthetic beauty of microbial life was brought to the forefront at SCELSE early this year thanks to the SCELSE Microphotography Imaging Contest. Organised by Facility Manager Talgat Sailov on behalf of the Advanced Biofilm Imaging Facility at SCELSE, the inaugural competition aimed to be a showcase of imaging possibilities under the skilled hands of researchers and through the facility’s high-end equipment.

Open for submission from January to February 2018, the contest garnered over thirty entries acquired by users of the facility’s microscopes. These were assessed by the critical eye of an anonymous panel of expert microscopists, who considered aesthetic aspects, the information conveyed, and the complexity of imaging techniques used.

PhD student and research staff, Tay Wei Hong clinching the top prize for “Thorny Defense” – a documentation of the infection of human keratinocytes (HaCaTs) by GFP-expressingEnteroccocus faecalis,with results announced on 5th April. Wei Hong’s image stood out for the accuracy and distinction of “colocalisation, which is technically very challenging for microscopes to do,” according to an anonymous judge. Wei Hong is also a hobbyist photographer interested in capturing “large things like landscapes and humans” as well as the smaller world of microbial life, and the win was significant in spotlighting his work on the intracellular lifestyle of E. faecalis.

“The prize is nice, but we were more than happy to showcase our group’s project,” says Wei Hong, who works with A/Prof. Kimberly Kline’s Lab at SCELSE. “The general public do not usually understand what we do. Showing these images are one form of advocacy to the community.”

“Many people perceive science to be nerdy, boring and all about equations on the board,” agrees research fellow Dr Artur Matysik, who also works in the KlineLab, and secured the second prize for his image of Group A Streptococcus (GAS) biofilm. “But when someone asks, ‘hey, what do you do?’, you can show them this picture and go, ‘Look, these chains of colourful dots are pathogenic bugs that often colonise the skin or throat. We look into how the formation of these amazing structures - that we call biofilms – help in colonisation and how to prevent it’. That’s usually more engaging than ‘oh, I study streptococcal biofilms’. There’s that overlap between art and science in microphotography that is valuable,” he continues.

For Artur, the bioimaging facility at SCELSE is where that liminal space can be found. “I like to play with various staining and acquisition techniques that improve both technical and aesthetic aspects of the images,” he admits. “When I see something really nice at the microscope, I will spend a little more time to re-acquire the same with improved quality to share, print or submit for competitions.” However, Artur adds that there is a calculated artistry to microphotography that matters. “Data is always the most important in scientific imaging. The biggest challenge is to not lose any of it and still produce a pretty picture."

Testament to Artur’s perspective, Talgat confirms that the choice of awarding second place to Artur was in part due to the amount of processing skills seen in his photo. “The raw data he presented did not look like the final image,” Talgat says. As for the third prize-winning entry, the panel was impressed by the amount of tile scanning and stitching done to procure the image of a colony biofilm consisting Pseudomonas aeruginosa,P. protegensand Klebsiella pneumonia growing together and fed by glucose and fumarate.

This luminous biofilm bloom submitted by research fellow Dr Sean Booth and done as part of his work with the Microbial Biofilms cluster and A/Prof. Scott Rice’s group, is just one of the incandescent images Sean has in his microphotography collection. Outside of SCELSE, Sean’s latest feather in his cap was having one of his images published as the 2018 cover photo of the Canadian Journal of Microbiology.

A habitual participant of microphotography competitions, Sean explains his impulse and the importance of such initiatives in communicating science, if at least to pique the interest of those less inclined to science and then, microbiology: “Species like pandas, polar bears and tigers are very photogenic. People see these things and want to protect them. Even the ugly deep-sea fish with the bulbous nose makes you go, ‘okay, Nature is weird but worth conserving’.”

“But to realise there’s life around you constantly, all over your body, inside you, on plants – that’s the microscale. You can’t see it ever, and I think it’s cool to be able to show people that,” Sean says. Such efforts may bring some professional traction too. “Some of these competitions have good prizes and exposure. People get to know who you are, hopefully know what you work on and see how good you are,” Sean surmises. 

For their submissions, the winners received a range of products sponsored by biomedical and life sciences technologies distributor ScienceWerke, which included laptops, high-end headphones and shopping vouchers.

The organisers also hope that the impact extends beyond the individual scientist and reflects upon the tools they use. “Seeing is believing. When people see we can do certain things, they will know we have a very capable imaging facility they can use,” Talgat says. “We want to promote active usage of the imaging facility by our fellow researchers in SCELSE.” 

Talgat further reveals that the bioimaging facility is in the midst of an upgrade and plans are in the works to hold regular seminars and workshops on topics of microscopy and image processing. A recent big stride is SCELSE’s entry into a newly established microscopy infrastructure network, SINGASCOPE (see below). “So, stay tuned!” Talgat declares. “A lot more good things are going to happen at the imaging facility!”


SingaScope is an upcoming microscopy infrastructure network that brings together imaging platforms of five institutes to enable scientists in Singapore to access valuable microscopy resources. 

Funded by a S$41-million NRF grant, the country-wide initiative will cater to researchers from SCELSE, A*STAR, SingHealth Advanced Bioimaging, and Centre for Bio-imaging Sciences (CBIS) and Mechanobiology Institute (MBI) at NUS, with the intention of expanding to include further platforms. 

With an eye on cementing Singapore’s position as the regional centre of excellence for microscopy, SingaScope has several plans in the pipeline for the usage of the grant. These include:

  • Establishing a searchable online database for scientists to identity and access instruments and expertise relating to microscopy
  • Organising forums for the exchange of experience and information between microscopists here and the international community
  • Upkeeping existing equipment 
  • Offering technical and operational training courses

Users of SCELSE’s Advanced Biofilm Imaging Facility may look forward to new imaging equipment and access to microscopes across the network’s research institutes.


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