Meet the Judges

Meet the 2021 Judging Panel

Each year, the Nikon Small World judging panel is selected with great care. The team behind the competition looks for individuals to make up the panel that represent a unique combination of skills, backgrounds, and talents in science, art, and communication. The panel is tasked with selecting the best of the thousands of microscopy photos and videos that are submitted from around the globe. They evaluate each photo and video based on technical prowess, scientific significance, it’s unique beauty, and it’s power to tell a story to the viewer. Their aim is to pick images that prompt curiosity, inspire others, and perfectly blend science and artistry.

Selecting the competition’s winners is no easy task and this year’s panel did it virtually for the second, and hopefully the last, year in a row. The panel was up for the challenge.

Want to get to know the 2021 judging panel a bit better before our winners are revealed? Read on to get to know the talented professionals who will be crowned this year’s winners.

Dr. Nsikan Akpan

Just this year, Nsikan accepted the John Dewey Award for Distinguished Public Service from his alma mater, Bard College

Dr. Nsikan Akpan was so curious about the world around him, he decided to leave academia to pursue a career in science journalism. Now the health and science editor at WNYC (NPR’s New York affiliate) focused on telling local stories, he started his career with a PhD. in pathobiology from Columbia University, where his research was focused on drug treatments for stroke and Alzheimer's disease. While he very much enjoyed this work, “Being in research means that you focus on one tiny little sliver of the world,” he said, “I wanted to expand my horizons and really look at science as a whole. By having to cover general science for national outlets, it means being familiar with geology, it means being familiar with black holes, it means being familiar with climate change. That desire to explore more of the world is what really led me to getting into journalism.”

Akpan has practiced microscopy himself, but as a journalist, now understands how a visual can change a story and help the public understand the importance of scientific work. Before coming to NPR, he wrote for National Geographic and worked for more than four years at PBS NewsHour, where he co-created an award-winning video series named ScienceScope. He shared a 2019 Emmy for the PBS NewsHour series "Stopping a Killer Pandemic" and in 2018 received a George Foster Peabody Award for the PBS NewsHour series "The Plastic Problem." Nsikan has also worked for Science News Magazine, Science Magazine, KUSP Central Coast Public Radio, the Santa Cruz Sentinel, and as a writer at the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University.

“Every single image is a representation of the world in that moment. And by collecting those representations, by collecting those moments, you get a better sense of how the world works even if you weren't there at the time. And I think the most powerful images can tell you a lot. They can almost tell you a whole story just in that single moment.”

Akpan’s unique background of both doing deep science and communicating it made him an ideal choice for this year’s panel. You can find his work here.

Hank Green

Hank Green and one of his YouTube channels, Journey to the Microcosmos

Once referred to as “American’s favorite science teacher” by The Washington Post, Hank Green possess a skill not many do: taking very complex topics and distilling them down into narratives that the everyday person can understand. With over 30 million subscribers on his YouTube channels and millions more fans on other social media platforms, Green has grown a significant following thanks to impressive story-telling abilities. His talent for finding topics, images and videos that tell important stories made him a great addition to this year’s panel.

When it comes to picking his favorite images and videos, Hank said, “I think we underestimate the impact of broader context when it comes to our appreciation of art. And that very much goes for scientific context as well as historical or cultural context. For me, it is all about the story. What makes a story compelling? Surprises, insight, plot twists, relevance to our lives...it all comes together to spark curiosity.”

Sparking curiosity is exactly what Green does best, “After getting my graduate degree, I was trying to scrape by with four or five different jobs and running my own blog. When my brother told me we should start a video blog together on YouTube in 2007, I guess I didn't know enough to say no. That early YouTube work led to shows like SciShow and Crash Course, which now each have more than a billion views on YouTube, and which are focused on getting people excited about learning about their worlds. We take people on journeys into the very small world and use that as an opportunity to learn about life, but also about ourselves.”

In addition to his YouTube career, Green is a public speaker, former scientist, and best-selling author who has interviewed the likes of President Obama and Bill Gates. His experience in sharing little worlds with the general public lent itself well to Small World judging. You can learn more about Green via his website.

Robin Kazmier

Robin Kazmier birding in Arizona and reporting on a massive insect inventory in Costa Rica

Now science editor at the PBS documentary series NOVA, Robin Kazmier discovered her passion for telling scientific stories while living in Costa Rica. “While I was there, I was an editor for a natural history press in the capital city of San José. I edited bird field guides and nature photography books geared toward tourists, scientists, and nature buffs. That’s where I discovered my love of science writing—and the importance of images in communicating science.”

Kazmier soon decided to pursue journalism, and joined The Tico Times, a leading English news outlet in Central America. Reporting on wildlife for the Times, she quickly realized that science journalism was her future, so, after almost nine years in Costa Rica, she moved to Boston to pursue a master’s in science writing at MIT. She went on to work as a freelancer, winning the Science in Society Reporting Award from the National Association of Science Writers for her coverage of cigarette butt pollution. At NOVA, she edits the digital news site NOVA Next; helps shape documentaries, digital videos, and podcast episodes; and oversees fact-checking for the entire series. Kazmier strives to make NOVA’s work more inclusive and broaden the kinds of stories the series covers. She shared a 2021 duPont-Columbia Award for NOVA’s “Decoding COVID-19” documentary. Her experience in multimedia production and focus on telling unique science stories served her well on this year’s judging panel.

When it comes to selecting winning microscopy, Kazmier says, “science and art are fundamentally creative endeavors that broaden our understanding of the world, but people often think of them as being in opposition rather than intertwined. I think it’s important to recognize and celebrate the fact that science can be beautiful, and art can create new knowledge—and bringing them together can be both powerful and awe-inspiring.”

In addition to her journalism, Kazmier is the author of the photography book National Parks of Costa Rica. You can learn more about Robin here.

Dr. Alexa Mattheyses

Dr. Alexa Mattheyses working in her laboratory at the University of Alabama

Dr. Mattheyses has been fascinated by small worlds since she was a child. “From a young age, I have always enjoyed the mystery of what lies beneath the surface. I liked figuring out how things work and the process of learning how to create.” That fascination led her to a career in science, and an early introduction to microscopy.

“My first experience with microscopy was in a summer internship following my second year of college,” she told us, “I was a college physics major, and I loved learning about cells and visualizing them in a research lab. In my doctoral work I focused on developing novel microscopy techniques at the University of Michigan. After completing my PhD, I was eager to employ these techniques to address cell biological questions, and I pursued this in my postdoctoral work. Now in my own lab, I continue to be fascinated about how microscopy and imaging can be pushed to explore biological questions in new and fascinating ways.”

Now the Associate Professor of Cell, Developmental and Integrative Biology and Director of the High-Resolution Imaging Facility at the University of Alabama, her research aims to apply optical microscopy techniques to better understand cellular communication and provide insight into the cellular basis for human health and disease. Dr. Mattheyses is also faculty in the analytical and quantitative light microscopy course (AQLM) at the Marine Biological Lab in Woods Hole, MA.

Mattheyses’s deep scientific understanding and experience in microscopy made her a huge help to the judging panel, especially when it came to identifying particularly difficult scientific technique.

When asked what she was looking for in a winning image, Mattheyses said, “The unexpected generates the most compelling images. Scientific images are so powerful because they not only answer questions but generate new questions. An image can not only be visually striking, but inspire creativity, often because once you get an image of the biology, it doesn't look anything like your hypothesis!”

You can read more about Dr. Mattheyses and her lab’s work here.

Dr. Hesper Rego

Dr. Rego and members of her research team at Yale University

Now an Assistant Professor of Microbial Pathogenesis at the Yale School of Medicine, Dr. Rego has always been fascinated by the process of discovery. “I think that's why I am so enchanted by the microscope - every time you sit down in front of that eyepiece, or computer, you have a chance of seeing something nobody has ever seen before,” she said.

Like many scientists before her, Rego’s path wasn’t linear. She originally went to school to become an astrophysicist and wanted to build telescopes. When she took a biophysics class in her junior year of college, she decided that she could go to grad school and use some of what she learned in physics to understand the biological world. It was in graduate school that she met her mentor, Mats Gustafsson, who was pioneering a new technique called structured-illumination microscopy (SIM), a type of super-resolution microscope.

“I decided to ditch my plans to learn something about biology and joined his lab, where I worked on building microscopes and extending the resolution of SIM using nonlinear fluorescence phenomena. Before graduating, I returned to my idea of learning something about biology. All the papers that I really enjoyed reading were about bacteria - they seemed like the perfect specimen to point a sub-diffraction microscope at because they are so small," Rego told us.

“Serendipity played a role again, and I met my postdoc advisor Eric Rubin, who studies the bacteria that causes tuberculosis. In his lab, I really cultivated a love of microbes, and became fascinated by their internal structures, how they grow and differentiate, and how they interact with the world around them. I now run a lab where we combine these two disciplines. We try to use advanced imaging methods to study how a group of microbes, called mycobacteria, survive drugs and the stresses imposed by the host,” she explained.

Rego’s experience in multiple disciplines and deep knowledge of microscopy techniques made her indispensable to the judging panel. She is excited to share the winners of this year’s competition, saying, “scientists and artists are both trying to make sense of the world around them. What's so cool about this competition is that it highlights the beauty that scientists can find under that objective.”

You can learn more about the work of Rego’s lab here.

This year’s panel selected some beautiful microscopy, and the Nikon team is excited to share what they picked with the public in the months to come. Look out for our video winners in August 2021 and the images to follow in September.

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