Masters of Microscopy

A Boyhood Passion for Science and Photography Paved the Way for the 2021 Nikon Small World Winner Jason Kirk

Welcome to Masters of Microscopy: The People Behind the Lens, where we showcase and celebrate the individuals who are the heart of the Nikon Small World competitions. They are scientists, artists, researchers, educators and everyday curious individuals who uncover the fascinating microscopic world around us.

Jason Kirk

Like many others who take photos through the microscope, Jason Kirk, this year’s Nikon Small World winner, first became interested in capturing the world around him thanks to a regular camera, a curious mind, and a general interest in biology. He started taking pictures as a hobby and eventually began working as a photo-journalist for his college newspaper at the University of Maine. After beginning a work study program in the lab of his undergraduate advisor, Jason was introduced to microscopy and became fascinated by creating imagery through the lens of a microscope.

“I started working in Seth Tyler’s lab in the mid-90’s and got to witness the beginnings of digital microscopy. At that time, labs were just starting to have first generation digital cameras hooked to computers and most micrography was done on film.” Jason said. “Seeing a live image on the computer screen for the first time was one of those transformational things. I knew immediately that this was something I wanted to do.”

Jason parlayed his new-found passion into a twenty-plus year career in the microscopy industry. Today, Jason is the director of the Optical Imaging & Vital Microscopy (OiVM) core facility at the Baylor College of Medicine, a microscopy and imaging lab that focuses on optical sectioning tools for fluorescence microscopy. Jason assists everyone from graduate students to tenured professors on how to use advanced light microscopy techniques and systems to support and further their research. His work serves as an example of the important role technology and microscopy play in scientific discovery.

Despite Jason’s vast lab experience, this year’s winning image came from a home-built microscope and a specimen taken from his backyard. Jason has had five other images placed in Nikon’s Small World photo competition since he started submitting in 2019, and this is his first year in the top spot.

Jason beside his home-built microscope and his winning image of trichome and stomata on a southern live oak leaf

Jason’s winning image is a masterful example of the dynamic relationship between imaging technology and artistic creativity. Using a custom-made microscope system that combines color filtered transmitted light with diffused reflected light, Jason captured around 200 individual images of the leaf and stacked them together to create this single stunning image. He used both transmitted and reflected light on opposite sides of the leaf to highlight three vital structures. Prominently featured in white are the trichomes, which are fine outgrowths that protect a plant against extreme weather, microorganisms, and insects. In purple, Jason highlights the stomata, small pores that regulate the flow of gases in a plant. Colored in cyan are the vessels that transport water throughout the leaf. All three are essential to plant life.

“The lighting side of it was complicated,” said Jason. “Microscope objectives are small and have a very shallow depth of focus. I couldn’t just stick a giant light next to the microscope and have the lighting be directional. It would be like trying to light the head of a pin with a light source that's the size of your head.” Jason edited the color temperature and hue in post-production to better illustrate the various elements pictured.

Jason on a ski trip with his family.

Jason has a soft spot for DIY microscopy, and how much one can learn from the hobbyist community. “There are people that spend their personal time making micrographs from a purely artistic standpoint, which is a great compliment to the scientific perspectives. Everyone has different interests and different angles for it, but they're all doing it because they love to do it. It’s wonderful to be a part of this community.”

When Jason isn’t working in the lab, he loves to spend time with his family and enjoy the outdoors, particularly skiing and scuba diving.

You can see more of Jason’s work on his website, Twitter, or Instagram.

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