Tiny Beauty: How I Make Scientific Art From Behind the Microscope

Steve Gschmeissner images tiny creatures and viruses to show the public an unseen world. (Pictured: The retracting foot of a bdelloid rotifer, a freshwater microscopic animal.)

Josie Glausiusz in Nature: Cheese fungus, head lice, human sperm, a bee eye, a microplastic bobble: scientific photographer Steve Gschmeissner has imaged them all under the probing lens of a scanning electron microscope (SEM). In his colourized electron micrographs, faecal bacteria resemble thin spaghetti, silica-walled diatoms look like cubes of breakfast cereal and a segmented tardigrade resembles a curled-up, tubby piglet. Gschmeissner, who has been imaging microbes, cancer cells and invertebrates for about 50 years, has crafted an extraordinary array of more than 10,000 SEM images, some of which have been featured in Nature. He spoke to Nature about the importance of scientific images, looking at imploding cancer cells and the miniature world he found on a rotten raspberry.

How did you begin creating your collection of electron-microscope shots?

My undergraduate degree is in zoology, and I first started doing electron microscopy in the department of anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons of England in London. I then moved to Cancer Research UK (CRUK), also in London, where I was head of electron-microscopy services until 2006. When I was 57, I met Rose Taylor, the creative director at the Science Photo Library in London, and she helped me to realize that there is commercial demand for photographic imagery. For a few years, I continued to work at CRUK until I felt confident enough to pursue commercial image production, and then started doing that as a part-time business.

Pictured: A head louse (Pediculus humanus capitis) clinging to a strand of human hair.

What are some of the projects you’ve worked on recently?

For the past six years, I’ve been collaborating with Greg Towers, a molecular virologist at University College London, who supplies me with samples to photograph. We’ve looked at a variety of viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19. The latest work I’ve done with Towers is a project on cancer-cell death. It’s the sort of work I love doing: science that tells a story with images. It’s been one of my most enjoyable and successful recent projects, because there’s very little else out there that shows what happens to cancer cells during chemotherapy.

More here.