Masters of Microscopy

Dr. Margaret Oechsli on Surfacing Unseen Beauty Through a Microscope

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.

Dr. Margaret Oechsli

The Nikon Small World competition has always sought to showcase photo and motion microscopy that marries science and art in a way that inspires and educates. Dr. Margaret Oechsli is among our past winners who uniquely captures the dynamic relationship between these two disciplines and possess a powerful viewpoint on how to use the microscope to highlight beauty in unexpected places or difficult situations.

With a Ph.D. in immunology, a specialization in immunochemistry and a background in research, Oechsli is no stranger to looking through a lens. “I spent my whole life working with microscopes, but I never saw it as means for anything other than lab work,” said Oechsli. In 1997, Oechsli received a Nikon Small World calendar and her perspective quickly changed, “I loved the photos and I thought, maybe I could do something like this.”

That year, she entered the competition for the first time with a photo of Crystals of sodium chloride (salt) and sodium hydroxide (lye) with red dye (phenol red), and received her first honorable mention. The entry was created on film since this was a time before digital imaging. According to Oechsli, “the rest is history,” in terms of her relationship with the competition. She has since faithfully submitted photos for consideration and has joined the winners circle 5 times.

Oechsli’s most recent win came in 2014 for her photo of phosphofructokinase, an enzyme used in the potential development of cancer drugs at that time. Aware of her interest in microscopy, her employers at the University of Louisville asked her to help create a large art piece (10 x 30 Feet) for the lobby of a research start-up building they were developing.

Oechsli in front of the mural she created for the University of Louisville Foundation Building.

In order to connect the new company and the university, Oechsli chose to explore imaging of the potential drugs involved in experimental cancer treatments locally at the University at this time. To take this particular image, Oechsli used a technique she calls a “digital close-up” – where she zoomed in on one part of the frame at a time until a particular focus caught her eye.

Oechsli’s photomicrograph of Phospho Fructo Kinase (PFK - 158): first-in-class drug candidate developed by Advanced Cancer Therapeutics in collaboration with University of Louisville researchers at the James Graham Brown Cancer Center. The drug blocks tumor cells ability to consume glucose as a fuel source for growth and metastasis. Titled: “The Sands of Time”.

Oechsli is most fascinated by crystallized substances. This interest led to what she refers to as her “artistic signature” of capturing one group of drugs at a time. Most recently, she created collections comprised only of oncology drugs and then the psychotherapy drugs. There is something special, she says, about allowing people to see what the substances running through their veins look like up close.

A sampling of Dr. Oechsli’s photomicrographs of Dexamethasone (chemo care).             

Upper Left: "Poverty Revealed". Upper Right: "Burning Every Bridge”. Bottom: "Broken Night".

She views chemical substances as most intriguing to capture because when mixed with water, it’s impossible to predict what patterns they will create once they dry. Because of the unpredictability, the most important part of Oechsli’s technique is not sample preparation, but having the patience to comb through hundreds of shots to find something beautiful.

“We often think art is just a human creation, but it has always existed at a micro level,” said Oechsli. “It’s just a matter of finding it and bringing it to the surface.”

One of her favorite parts of taking photos of these materials under the microscope is finding ways to extract beauty in unexpected places. During a recent interview with Nikon Small World, Oechsli shared the story of a cancer patient who loved the microscopic photo she had taken of a chemo drug that hung in the waiting room of her facility. The close-up look at a hard to understand drug brought the patient comfort and perspective.

In both science and art, the human factor is what is most important to Oechsli. “I’ve always wanted to be involved in work where I felt like I was doing good,” she said.

A true example of what Nikon Small World stands for, Oechsli has found success in the two competitive worlds of art and science. Not only has she been recognized multiple times by Nikon Small World, but her work has been featured in prominent science publications like Nature, International Journal of Science. Her photo collections have been featured in art galleries, including the Able Fine Art gallery in New York City, multiple art shows in Europe, including Imperial Palace Hofburg in Vienna Austria.

Art show in a IMAX Theater lobby. The theme of the images was “in a climate” (colors, mood) of Vincent van Gogh’s painting. Oechsli was asked to prepare the art show at the time when IMAX was presenting the film, “Brush with Genius”. 

Currently she is involved in public health research surrounding lung cancer prevention in Kentucky and creating micrographs as a hobby.

We at Nikon Small World can’t wait to see what she creates next.

You can see more of Oechsli’s work on her website or at nikonsmallworld.com

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