World's Smallest Catch

Jan 10, 2023

© Jim Wetzel, PhD, FBCA

Jim Wetzel's image, "World's Smallest Catch" won a Judges Choice award and an Image of Merit award in the Magnified Image category of the BioImages 2022 Salon.

What was your concept when creating the image? Was it for a job or for personal creativity?

During the spring of 2022 I was on sabbatical. My original plans included travel to California for research at my former employ, Bodega Marine lab, and then to Australia for specimen work on seahorses at the Australian Museum. The pandemic changed all that, but I was determined to make the most of my sabbatical time. As such, I reconnected with researchers at nearby Clemson University and colleagues at the state fish hatchery in Walhalla, South Carolina to combine my interests in microscopy and fish embryology. So concisely stated – this was an extension of my job. The creativity followed. I find the embryos of various species quite beautiful – often resembling celestial bodies more than the vertebrates they will become. Whenever I do photograph something that interests me, I work to being out the details that caught my eye with hopes of passing that rapture on to my students.

Tell us something about the creative process you use when coming up with a solution to a problem/assignment.

Capturing an image through the microscope is not what I would call challenging other than the extremely small depth of field available through the optics of light microscopy. And since I am working with live embryos, there is always considerable background elements (aquatic debris) within the frame that detracts from the subject.

What technical issues did you have, or have to work out, to create the image?

Z-stacking helped immeasurably with the lack of depth of field. Using OnOne software, I decreased haze and increased structure to isolate the embryo, and then add a rather strong vignette filter to darken the background and eliminate aquatic debris.

Tell us something about the subject of this image.

This image is of the 72hr. post-fertilization embryo of a rainbow trout, Oncorhynchus mykiss. This specific strain is known as the Tasmanian Rainbow – no relation to Tasmania as an origin, but refers to the aggressive nature of this strain (like the Tasmanian devil from Warner Brothers cartoons). This strain is raised in hatcheries across the USA. Reported they readily ‘hit’ anything that floats by in the water to the delight of sport fisherman.

What elements are important to you when you judge or critique your work or the work of others?

I have never had formal training in art and am only superficially versed about concepts such as composition and color balance, etc. So beyond such basics as ‘rule of thirds, background control, etc.) my personal barometer is “would I like to hang this on the wall”? My students coined the phrase “T-shirt worthy” when we generate interesting images in my embryology lab.

Tell us something about yourself.

I’m now in my 34th year as a biology professor. Embryology is my primary focus, and microscopy (typically Fluorescent and Electron Microscopy) are the tools I employ. I also teach several levels of anatomy – in particular, the development of anatomical structures I find most interesting. All this distills down to generating ‘visual data’.

What is your imaging background?

Prior to my current academic position, I worked as research diver at the University of California marine lab in Bodega Bay. That brought me into the field of underwater photography which preceded any other interests that I have in photography. My graduate school work on developmental ultrastructure of shark placental analogues and subsequent doctoral research on seahorse development introduced me to both photomicrography and electron microscopy. Between the two, I believe I spent as many hours in the darkroom as I did in the field. I loved every minute. I did not love the critique of my images that followed from my major professor but he did instill in me the concept of seeking perfection.

Who are some of your favorite images makers?

Carl Rosessler (technical perfection) and Hans Hass (a pioneer) for underwater work. But as regards Bioimaging – I need to list several BCA members who influenced me is many ways. I know this sound placating for a BCA article, but it is quite true. In no special order (I’ll default to alphabetical order), those members are Norm Barker, Chip Hedgecock, Danielle Edwards, Gale Spring, and Bob Turner. It is a mixture of examples set with their works, and support/encouragement offered that moved me from tyro to competent as a photographer. And I offer a special shout to Gabe Unda. Gabe influenced me in so many positive ways whenever we interacted at the BCA meetings. His passion was contagious.

Do you have any special advice for people interested in an imaging career in biomedical/life sciences?

Get formally trained – learning on your own is the long road. Don’t get caught up in being a ‘gear head’. I’ve made both mistakes. Join the BCA. I got that one right.

Are you a member of BCA, and if so, how has your membership in the BCA helped you?

Yes. My first meeting was in Park City, Utah. It is the blend collaboration and support that defines the BCA. As I’ve remarked before – the BCA is an organization wherein members seem to celebrate one another’s achievement rather than compete for the stage. That, among scientific conferences, is special.