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Visualizing data as if under a microscope

A clip from the Turbulence and Topography visualization. This work is about environmental research in the desert and arctic based on Craig Tweedie's research. It's displayed in the CyberShare Visualization Lab, the University of Texas at El Paso. Art is by Francesca Samsel. Video shot by Sean Cunningham and edited by Douglas Pollard. Image courtesy TACC.

Artist Francesca Samsel uses the high processing abilities of specialized visualization screens to communicate scientific data in a new way — as works of art.

"Art gives you an inroad to a larger understanding," says Samsel . "You can put up something on the screen that shows you all the science, but if you don't have an element that connects back to the audience you're not going to get any buy in. And that's where I come in."

The high-resolution displays that Samsel uses to showcase her pieces are customized systems made up of a dozens of computer screens. Stallion, an 80-monitor visualization system at the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) has more than 100 processing cores and 108 gigabyte of system memory, which allows it to render images in 328-megapixel resolution—the highest resolution of any system in the world. The detail Stallion enables makes it Samsel's favorite screen.

"You think, 'Why do you need all that?' I can tell you it makes a huge difference in depth and richness of imagery and that's important because it's captivating," Samsel says about Stallion's abilities. "That's the key. You have to captivate your audience first, no matter who they are."

Samsel's subjects come from across the scientific spectrum and include the Deep Water Horizon oil spill and H1N1 pandemic flu. But, her style is consistent from piece to piece: a bright and colorful collage of images that flow in and out of view across a towering display screen; an abstract form made up of, and inspired by, scientific data.

Although she displays her work on screens, the individual components are usually first created by hand— being sculpted, painted, or printed (Samsel's specialty) — before being scanned into a computer. Then, they are digitally rendered, bringing to light details in the work that likely would remain unseen without high-resolution display.

"Printmaking is fascinating because you get this infinitesimal detail just like in biology. The closer you look the more detail you see," says Samsel. "When I put it on the screen and I blow it up you can see those things, just like when you put something under the microscope."

For ideas and inspiration Samsel heads to the scientific laboratory, collaborating directly with scientists to inform her pieces. She draws from their data and scientific visualizations - often bound for journals and research posters - to build works of art that explore similar themes.

For researchers, Samsel's artwork serves as a reservoir of captivating images to use in presentations or publications. But having an artist in the lab and a scientist in the art studio, so to speak, can benefit the creative process in a much larger way than exchanging materials.

"It's a process that goes backwards and forwards,” said Craig Tweedie, a professor in biology and environmental science and engineering at the University of Texas at El Paso. “We're both learning, we're both discovering, we're both accepting new ideas and new ways of doing things and visualizing things."

Building art from scientific data creates a piece that in part showcases facts and figures — but Samsel says her works are not meant to be a science lesson, rather an invitation to learn more about larger issues.

"Good artwork draws you in on a gut level and makes you want to explore more," says Samsel. "What I do is present science combined with art so the richness of a topic is accurate and accessible."

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