Illustrating Science: Int’l Science and Engineering Fair Student Projects Beautifully Visualized

"Algae and Self-Sustaining Energy" by Elle Kim

"Algae and Self-Sustaining Energy" by Elle Kim - based on research by student Wayne Vigil Jr. using photosynthetic algae for energy production and storage.

"Algae and Self-Sustaining Energy" by Elle Kim
{link url=}"Algae and Self-Sustaining Energy"{/link} by Elle Kim - based on research by student Wayne Vigil Jr. using photosynthetic algae for energy production and storage.

Intel makes a lot of computer chips and a lot of money and like many businesses that rely heavily on cutting-edge research, they recognize the need to invest in the future. Since 1997, Intel has sponsored an International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) for high school students.

It’s not the kind of science fair with vinegar volcanos. ISEF student projects can be just as esoteric as Nobel laureates’ research (indeed, seven ISEF alumni have won Nobel prizes). It can feel like you need several PhDs just to understand the project abstracts. But this year, those of ISEF’s student scientists lucky enough to be paired with professional artists will see their research translated into compelling and accessible posters for the public.

NPR covered some of these posters in “When Art Meets Science, You’ll Get the Picture,” but the Intel SciArt series is so chock-full of goodness that I couldn’t resist exploring further.

Apadora / Needle in a Haystack
{link url=}"Apadora / Needle in a Haystack"{/link} by Adam Garcia

“This illustration depicts the finding of a ‘needle in a haystack,’ as it were, in reference to the Apadora algorithmic processes to find the correct data in the glut of information that is twitter feeds,” says Portland-based artist Adam Garcia. He designed the poster to communicate the research of Nicholas Schiefer, a Canadian student whose “microsearch” algorithm won the Intel Foundation Young Scientist Award. The algorithm, named Apodora after a New Guinean python, follows connections between words to infer relatedness (for example, “cat” and “kitten” are more closely related than “cat” and “particle”) then uses the information to improve searches in short bits of text like tweets and headlines.

Garcia’s poster offers a beautiful concrete metaphor (and unfortunately a misspelling) of an abstract computer algorithm. Other SciArt posters illuminate more concrete science, and find their challenge in deciding which aspect of the work to highlight.

"Clean Water" by Alexa Dunham
{link url=}"Clean Water"{/link} by Alexa Dunham

In “Clean Water,” Los Angeles artist Alexa Dunham chose to focus on the potential outcome of applying the discovery, rather than the discovery itself. Her scientists were a group of Japanese students who stumbled across a technique for collecting spilled oil while studying the hunting technique of the archerfish.

Archerfish spit streams of water into the air to knock down their insect prey. Mimicking this behavior with artificial water jets, the team discovered that their small jets were transporting surrounding water into the air. They turned from their archerfish research to calculations of how such jets could be used to clean up near-surface oil in the wake of a spill.

None of the scientists or artists featured online right now are from the Bay Area–but new art will be going up soon, and there were plenty of Bay Area students at the ISEF, so who knows?


Danna Staaf

Danna Staaf is a marine biologist, science writer, novelist, artist, and educator. She holds a PhD in Squid Babies from Stanford and a BA in Biology from the College of Creative Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She helped found the outreach program Squids4Kids, illustrated The Game of Science, and blogs at Science 2.0. She lives in San Jose with her husband, daughter, and cats.

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