The first Hilda Canter-Lund competition winner


Before we put the Hilda Canter-Lund competition to rest for another year, I thought I would dig out the very first winning entry to see how much had changed over the ensuing years.  The British Phycological Society ran the first competition in 2008 not as an open competition to which people submitted their images, but as a prize for the micrograph published in their journal, the European Journal of Phycology, that was “judged best with respect to a combination of scientific, technical and aesthetic merit”.  David Mann and I scoured through the 2007 and 2008 issues of the journal and selected the image above as the winner.   It comes from a paper by Conxi Rodríguez-Pieto, D. Wilson Freshwater and Noemí Sánchez on the morphology of the red alga Gloiocladia repens and is shows a fusion cell, one of the early post-fertilisation stages.   The scale bar in the bottom left corner is 50 micrometres (= 1/20th of a millimetre).

Strip away the explanatory labels and you are left with a pleasing abstract monochrome composition dominated by a vaguely tree-like structure.   You do not need to know anything about the reproductive biology of red algae to find some aesthetic pleasure from this image.  However, images in a scientific journal are not supposed to stand in isolation.   They are loaded with significance which the viewer needs to be able to decode and come alive through interplay between the image and text.  The viewer, indeed, needs to bring considerable prior knowledge to the text itself: the European Journal of Phycology serves as a conduit for new knowledge, not as a means of explaining basic principles of red algal reproduction to the uninitiated.   Whereas the fine artist might regard abstraction as a mental exercise unconstrained by reality, this image, however “abstract” it may appear to the uninitiated is, in fact, representational (see “Abstracting from reality …”).

We recognise images as depictions of particular objects by a mental process of matching our sensory perceptions to impressions (“schemata”) stored in our memories.   Similar processes now take place automatically using computer algorithms and, as an indication of how far this image is from the mainstream, the alternative text suggested by my computer (to be used in situations where the image itself cannot be displayed) was: “A picture containing nature, pizza, rain sitting …”

After this first exercise, we rethought the competition.  Offering the prize only to published images in the European Journal of Phycology was limiting because the images were only ever selected for their role in a larger story.  The aesthetic qualities of the image were always secondary to this purpose and we closed off significant pathways of visual exploration in the process.  So the following year, we ran it as an open competition and invited entries from the entire phycological community.   That attracted over fifty entrants and the format has stayed more-or-less unchanged ever since.


Rodríguez-Pieto, C., Freshwater, D.W. &  Sánchez, N. (2008).Vegetative and reproductive morphology of Gloiocladia repens (C. Agardh) Sánchez et Rodríguez-Prieto comb. nov. (Rhodymeniales, Rhodophyta), with a taxonomic re-assessment of the genera Fauchea and Gloiocladia.  European Journal of Phycology 42: 145-162.


Some other highlights from this week:

Wrote this whilst listening to:   Gaslighter, the new album by The Chicks and Jarvis Cocker’s Beyond the Pale

Cultural highlights:  we’ve been watching Life on Mars, the TV series about a detective who travels back in time to the 1970s.  Like Mad Men, it manages to trigger simultaneously a sense of nostalgia and an awareness of the casual sexism and racism that were rife at the time.  We’ve come a long way, though that does not necessarily mean that we have come far enough …

Currently reading:   Utopia Avenue, the new novel by David Mitchell

Culinary highlight:  I have a painful mouth ulcer, so eating is a chore rather than a pleasure just at the moment, I am afraid.

Hilda Canter-Lund competition winners, 2020


The winner of this year’s Hilda Canter-Lund competition for the best algal-themed photograph is Davis Laundon of the Marine Biological Association in Plymouth for his photograph The Phycosphere.   Davis is a particularly appropriate winner of the competition as he, like Hilda Canter-Lund, has made a special study of chytrids, a group of simple fungi that were also the focus of Hilda Canter-Lund’s own research.  His current research at the Marine Biological Association looks at how thraustochytrids (fungus-like protists that, despite their name, are actually quite distant relations of true chytrids) interact with marine diatoms.

Davis’ picture, The Phycosphere shows a planktonic diatom Coscinodiscus photographed using confocal microscopy and fluorescence lighting.   A layperson looking at this image will see a pleasing circular semi-abstract composition against a dark backdrop and will probably be surprised if you told them that they were actually looking at living organisms.   Even if Davis had used straightforward brightfield lighting, then the yellow-brown colour of diatom chloroplasts might still have made it hard for a layperson to place as a distinct life-form.  Someone who knows about plankton, on the other hand, would have been able to recognise it as a centric diatom, and maybe name the genus.  The use of fluorescence lighting lifts the image in two ways: first, by making it more visually interesting, whether to a layperson or informed biologist, and second, because despite the artificial colours, it gives us more insights into the true nature of the organism than are possible with “ordinary” light.

Of particular interest, in this case, is the sprinkling of blue dots around the perimeter of the cell.  These are bacteria living in the thin mucus layer that surrounds every diatom cell.   Look back at the many images of live diatoms I’ve included in this blog and you will never see these diatoms but they are, undoubtably present.  They are, however, very small and difficult to discern with brightfield microscopy.  Only by adding a special stain that binds to DNA, then shining light of a particular wavelength through the microscope do we realise that it is there, as the stained DNA now fluoresces with a bright blue colour.


Michiel Vos:Carpodesmia tamariscifolia (Bushy Rainbow Wrack) framed by Himanthalia elongata (Thong  Weed) in a rockpool in Falmouth, Cornwall, U.K.   The picture frame encloses a depth of about a metre.  Davis Laundon’s The Phycosphere is at the top of the post.   The diatom is about a tenth of a millimetre in diameter (actually about 90 micrometres).

We have to go a little further west from Plymouth to meet our second prize winner, Michiel Vos.  Michiel (“Mick”) is originally from the Netherlands but is now a senior lecturer in microbiology at Exeter University’s Falmouth Campus.  His day-job doesn’t actually involve the study of algae, but he spends as much of his spare time as possible dabbling around the rock pools of the Cornish coast.  This particular image is a magical view of algae that could be the CGIed backdrop to a sequence in a fantasy movie.   The rainbow wrack is a perennial that forms a home to many animals, from sponges to tunicates.  The Bull Huss often attaches its egg cases to this alga and, in addition, many seaweed species grow epiphytically on it.   As for Davis’ image, we have an instantaneous hit of an intriguing image which then provides an entrée to a more sophisticated reading that reminds us of the interplay between organisms in the natural world.    Mick also writes a blog, An Bollenesor (“the rockpool hunter” in the Cornish language) is well worth a visit and contains much more of his stunning photography.

Our winners encapsulate the tensions encountered when photographing algae: Davis leans towards abstraction whilst Mick goes for a depiction of “other worlds” portrayal (see “How to win the Hilda Canter-Lund competition (2)”).   Davis offers us a very tech-heavy image whilst Mick leans towards the “decisive moment” (see “How to win the Hilda Canter-Lund competition”).   Both, however, fulfil the competition’s brief of celebrating the hidden world of this fascinating group of organisms.


Some other highlights from this week:

Wrote this whilst listening to:   The National and Bob Dylan’s new album Rough and Rowdy Ways

Cultural highlights:  Fanny Lye Deliver’d, a sometimes brutal portrayal of the religious turmoil in the aftermath of the English Civil War.   Ranters versus Puritans.

Currently reading:   Bill Bryson’s Down Under

Culinary highlight:  When I’m at a festival I seek out the stall selling Goan fish curry, and this week Felicity Cloake’s column in The Guardian described how to cook the perfect Goan fish curry.  To be honest, I haven’t eaten it yet, but the smell as it was cooking was quite something..

Hilda Canter-Lund shortlist 2020

One of my more pleasurable duties during the year is to organise the Hilda Canter-Lund competition on behalf of the British Phycological Society.  This year we had 57 entries – a record (I think) – from which we had to choose a shortlist.    Amongst the entries was the first we’ve ever had using a Foldscope DIY microscope and smartphone as well as the usual range of images produced using high-end equipment.   That one didn’t make the shortlist this year, unfortunately but … watch this space: there are plans afoot to promote these cheap but effective microscopes to the phycological community.

As usual, we’ve tried to get a balance between the very large and the very small.  In the big corner we have two images by old friends of the competition: Erasmo Macaya and Galice Hoarau.   Erasmo, from the Universidad de Concepción in Chile won the competition in 2010 with a fine image of Macrocystis pyrifera, the largest seaweed on earth.  This year he has revisted the same species, producing an intriguing semi-abstract image playing on the contrasting textures of blade and stipe.  Galice, originally from France but now based at Nord University in Bodø, Norway, made the shortlist in 2009 with a view peering out from an underwater cavern off the coast of Brittany.  This year, he shows us a beautifully composed view of three different species of Fucus growing together in the North Sea.


Erasmo Macaya’s Awesome Brown and Galice Hoarau’s Fucus, from the 2020 Hilda Canter-Lund shortlist.

The third image that highlights the beauty and diversity amongst the large algae comes from Michiel Vos, a newcomer to the competition.  Michiel is originally from the Netherlands but now works at the Cornwall Campus of the University of Exeter where he is an evolutionary microbiologist with a sideline in dabbling about in rockpools.  His blog, An Bollenesor(“the rockpool hunter” in the Cornish language) is well worth a visit and contains much more of his stunning photography.  The image on our shortlist shows bushy rainbow wrack (Carpodesmia tamariscifolia) framed by thong weed (Himanthalia elongata).

The next image comes from John Huisman, another old friend of the competition. John, from the Western Australian Herbarium, won the competition three times – in 2011 and 2014, won the second prize in 2018 and was also shortlisted in 2019.  His image falls into the grey zone between macro- and microphotography – highlighting small details on a big alga.  In this case John has chosen to explore propagules on an undescribed species of the red algal genus Hypnea producing an image that, like Erasmo Macaya’s, is part representational, part abstract.


Michiel Vos’ image from a rockpool in Falmouth and John Huisman’s image of stellate propagules of an undescribed species of Hypnea.  The scale bar on John’s picture is 100 micrometres (= 1/10th of a millimetre). 

The remaining three images are all of microalgae.   First up is Thomas Pröschold of the University of Innsbruck with ”Cosmic volvocine alga: Pleodorina californica”.  Pleodorina (synonym: Eudorina) is a genus of green algae closely related to Volvox (see “The intricate life of a colonial alga …”) and Thomas has used differential interference contrast (DIC) microscopy to produce an ethereal image of two colonies.  Like many of the micrographs that have appeared in the shortlist over the years, this one explores the borderlands between representation and abstraction: it is recognisable as two algal colonies to those who have prior experience but, to many other viewers it may appear as an abstract composition.


Thomas Pröschold: Cosmic volvocine alga: Pleodorina californica

The borderlands between representation and abstraction are also explored by Davis Laundon of the Marine Biological Asssociation in Plymouth.  His entry, The Phycosphere, shows the diatom Coscinodiscus from the English Channel photographed using fluorescent light.   The chloroplasts (usually yellow-brown in diatoms) are, under this light, red in colour and Davis has also used a stain that binds to DNA in order to highlight the nucleus of the diatom (which cannot be seen with normal lighting) and also the myriad of bacteria that are growing in the thin layer of mucus that surrounds the diatom cell.  The colouring is artificial yet, at the the same time, it gives us better insights into the true nature of the organisms we are studying.

Florida International University’s Kristy Sullivan’s image of the desmid Staurastrum nova-caesarae completes the short list.   This is the first scanning electron micrograph on the shortlist since 2015 (see “How to win the Hilda Canter-Lund Prize (4)”) but this one caught the shortlist judge’s eyes.  The desmid with its spines looks something like a satellite hovering in orbit.  Like Thomas Pröschold’s image, it plays games with our visual senses: are we looking at something very small or something enormous?

The winners will be chosen from this list by a vote amongst members of the BPS Council, and the result of that should be available very soon.  You can see the whole shortlist on the BPS website, and we’ll also announce the winners there too.  We’re also working towards a major exhibition of winners and shortlisted images in the grounds of Nottingham University at the end of this year, so if you live in the English Midlands, this will be worth a special trip.


Davis Laundon’s The Phycosphere and Kristy Sullivan’s image of the desmid Staurastrum nova-caesarae.


Some other highlights from this week:

Wrote this whilst listening to: more old Glastonbury sets.  Particularly enjoyed Arcade Fire’s headline set from 2014.

Cultural highlights:  Nothing particularly high brow this week.   Enjoyed the ridiculous new comedy Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

Currently reading:   The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

Culinary highlight:  a meal of home-cooked Sichuan food eaten with our son, home for one night between one lease expiring and the next starting.