Vet school's awe-inspiring equine image wins Wellcome's big prize

Is it science or is it art?
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One of the growing fields of specialty in technology is using art techniques to capture, portray and interpret the wonders of science. Whether it is looking through a scanning electron microscope or photographing the Black Holes in space from a telescope, the macro and the micro of photography and illustration techniques are developing as quickly as any digital media skill.

So should horses be left behind? Should we be satisfied with images of magnificent horses' manes blowing in the breeze on the beach, or are their new ways to see our horses? Can science give us new ways to look at and appreciate our horses?

Credit: Thermography (left) by Chris Pollitt; Mimics CT scan model images (right) by Simon Collins; laminitisconference.com Portraying the destruction caused by the disease of equine laminitis has inspired some spectacular tech images in the horse world, demonstrated by these images from the Australian Equine Laminitis Research Unit at the University of Queensland, utilized by the International Equine Conference on Laminitis and Diseases of the Foot.

Credit: Thermography (left) by Chris Pollitt; Mimics CT scan model images (right) by Simon Collins; laminitisconference.com Portraying the destruction caused by the disease of equine laminitis has inspired some spectacular tech images in the horse world, demonstrated by these images from the Australian Equine Laminitis Research Unit at the University of Queensland, utilized by the International Equine Conference on Laminitis and Diseases of the Foot.

When a stunning equine science image was named overall winner of the 2015 Wellcome Image Awards, there was a small gasp from many who expected the prize to go to a medical image or something more "tech" oriented. Those people would have counted out the factor of art in the portrayal of science.

The photograph is not even of something new and revolutionary. The subject matter had been sitting around in a vat of formalin for the last forty years. The photographer didn't even take it out of the jar. It's a subject we all know well: reproduction.

In this case, it's not the what that won the prize, it's the how. Is it the gesture of the fetus's perfectly formed hooves? Is it the twist of the umbilical cord? Or is it the stretching of the sac that encloses his head, while his hind legs dangle freely in the liquid? How does this image make you feel?

Credit: Michael Franks, Royal Veterinary College, University of London And the winner is...the five-month fetus of a New Forest pony half-emerged from the uterus of its mother. The developing pony (fetus) is outside the uterus but remains attached by its membranes and umbilical cord. The bent back legs of the fetus are sticking out from the membranes. The uterus has been cut open to reveal its vast blood supply, which is visible on the inner surface. This historical specimen is from a cull animal that happened to be pregnant at the time. It is preserved in formalin in a Perspex container and was photographed in the Anatomy Museum of the Royal Veterinary College in London. The container measures 48 x 30 x 7 cm.

Credit: Michael Franks, Royal Veterinary College, University of London And the winner is...the five-month fetus of a New Forest pony half-emerged from the uterus of its mother. The developing pony (fetus) is outside the uterus but remains attached by its membranes and umbilical cord. The bent back legs of the fetus are sticking out from the membranes. The uterus has been cut open to reveal its vast blood supply, which is visible on the inner surface. This historical specimen is from a cull animal that happened to be pregnant at the time. It is preserved in formalin in a Perspex container and was photographed in the Anatomy Museum of the Royal Veterinary College in London. The container measures 48 x 30 x 7 cm.

Picture Editor of BBC Focus magazine, James Cutmore, who was a member of the judging panel, said: “As far as standout images go, the image of the horse’s uterus with the fetus still inside was incredible and just sticks in my mind.

"It evokes many different emotions at once. It’s fascinating, sad, macabre, almost brutal. Yet the subject is also delicate, detailed and beautiful. The image shows us a large and magnificent creature reduced to this sad, fragile and half-formed creation, which I find very humbling.”

Another judge, Tim Smit, Founding Director of the Eden Project, the world's largest indoor rainforest, described the winning image as “hypnotic, like a Hieronymus Bosch painting…only it is real and truly marvelous.”

The 40-year-old specimen can be found in the Lanyon Anatomy Museum of the Royal Veterinary College, part of the University of London (RVC). You don't need a special lens or filters or lighting. It can be seen with the naked eye.

The photograph is part of a project between the photographer, Michael Frank, and Nick Short, Head of the eMedia Unit at the RVC, to bring new perspectives to a selection of specimens at the museum.

Winning photographer Michael Frank says: “Using sophisticated photographic techniques, we were able to rejuvenate these special dissections and make them available to a whole new audience of students, academics and the public. I like to think that this digital format is a fitting tribute to all the skill of past generations of anatomists in creating these resources and the many generations of vets who have benefited from studying them.”

In addition to the winning image, another image from the collaboration between Michael and Nick was also shortlisted, the reticulum (stomach chamber) of a goat. The RVC completed a hat-trick of shortlisted entries, with PhD student Sophie Regnault’s 3D image of a preserved lizard specimen also making the final twenty.

Scientist and broadcaster Adam Rutherford, who presented this year’s awards, said: “The breath-taking riches of the imagery that science generates are so important in telling stories about research and helping us to understand often abstract concepts. It's not just about imaging the very small either, it's about understanding life, death, sex and disease: the cornerstones of drama and art. Once again, the Wellcome Image Awards celebrate all of this and more with this year’s incredible range of winning images.”

Beginning this month, all the winning images will be exhibited at eleven science centers, museums and galleries, as far afield as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Koch Institute), here in the USA.

The images will also be displayed in the window of the Wellcome Trust headquarters in London, and will be made available on the Wellcome Image Awards website. They already feature in Wellcome Images collections, where they can be accessed and used along with more than 40,000 other contemporary biomedical and clinical images.

The Awards were established in 1997 to reward contributors to the collection for their outstanding work.

Thanks, as always, to Nick Short, Head of the RVC's eMedia Unit, and to the images department at Wellcome Trust, for their assistance with this article. A press release was the source of direct quotes.

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