Main Menu (Mobile)- Block

Main Menu - Block

Wall of Inspiration reflects science’s known and unsung heroes

custom | custom
custom | custom

04/19/23 | Wall of Inspiration reflects science’s known and unsung heroes

node:body | entity_field


Deep into the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kristina Keller pulled an old MacBook down from a shelf in her home office and started to create a picture of Marie Curie.

Stuck at home, and in between managing projects for Janelia Experimental Technology and managing her toddler, Keller uploaded thousands of pictures of Curie and her work into photo mosaic construction software created by the late Janelia Software Engineer Frank Midgley. The program, created more than a decade before, had trouble running on Keller’s newer computer but ran perfectly on the old laptop. As Keller and her family worked, ate, played, and slept, the old MacBook worked for hours, using the images and Midgley’s software to create a mosaic portrait of the Nobel Prize-winning scientist.

The Curie portrait would be the first of more than 20 that Keller would create for Janelia’s “Wall of Inspiration,” an updated set of 42 mosaic portraits of scientists aimed at inspiring the Janelia community and visitors. The set of images includes famous Nobel Prize-winning scientists, like Curie, as well as scientists who worked in obscurity, were overlooked in their lifetimes, or experienced institutional racism, sexism, or other forms of bias as they pursued their science.

Three years later, Janelians and visitors who come to campus pass by the updated wall as they go to lunch, rush to a meeting, or chat with colleagues.  

“It is a nice feeling – you walk by the wall and say, I was a part of that. And I learned so much about so many different people,” Keller says. “It was a great way to give back to the Janelia community and modernize our wall to be more representative of the scientific community.”

Creating the new wall

The project began as the pandemic started in 2020. A group of Janelians decided it was time to update the set of portraits outside Janelia’s cafeteria that featured scientists who were overwhelmingly white and male. Many in the community felt the collection should reflect Janelia’s aspiration that science and the research campus be open and welcoming to everyone and should include people who look like the diverse faces in the Janelia community – concerns that had been voiced over the years since the first collection was completed.

The old images came down, and all Janelians were invited to nominate scientists for the new gallery and vote on which to include. Once the list was narrowed down, the nominators were asked to help create the portraits using Midgley’s software. The program, which was used to create the original collection in 2010, sorts thousands of images reflecting a person’s life and work to create a mosaic portrait. Each volunteer received a laptop with the software, Senior Group Leader Kristin Branson gave a class on how to create the images – and then the Wall of Inspiration hit a wall.


“It came to a screaming halt,” says Senior Executive Assistant Sarah Moorehead, who was leading the project. Creating the mosaics was difficult and time-consuming, and after a few months the team had only a handful of portraits completed by those who managed to tackle the software. “I thought, there is no way that I am going to finish this project.”

But then Keller’s Curie image showed up, and the project got back on track. Moorehead and others would spend time between Zoom meetings, after work, and on weekends compiling images for each portrait – from neurons drawn by Santiago Ramón y Cajal to treatments for leprosy developed by Alice Ball. They handed the images over to Keller, who would work her magic on her old MacBook. Soon, the wall started to come to life.

“Bit by bit, week by week, month by month, we would add more and more and more, and all of a sudden, we had 28 pictures and it was starting to look good. And then that became, let’s get this done, let’s finish this,” Moorehead says. “It went from something I thought we’d never finish, and that I didn’t know how to navigate, to coming out with a spectacular gallery of incredible people.”

A reflection of the community

The new wall includes portraits of famous and not-so-famous scientists, people of different genders, races, and sexual orientations, and those who overcame obstacles to do science. There is also a blank canvas representing the many scientists and innovators who faced discrimination throughout history and whose contributions and achievements were not recognized – an idea suggested by Senior Scientist Gleb Shtengel. 

"It shows that there are all of these interesting, different kinds of stories and scientists, and different ways of succeeding."

— Roian Egnor, senior scientist at Janelia

“People on the wall are this really interesting mix of Nobel laureates, but then there are also a lot of people who didn’t have college degrees or had not gotten recognition in their lifetimes,” says Roian Egnor, a senior scientist at Janelia who played a key role in creating the new wall. “It shows that there are all of these interesting, different kinds of stories and scientists, and different ways of succeeding.”

Today’s Wall of Inspiration reflects not only society, but also the Janelia community. Among the portraits is Mats Gustafsson, a group leader who died of cancer in 2011. Keller also included a picture of the person nominating the scientist in the portraits she designed.

“An important part is that it was the community who nominated people, and so the wall is more a direct reflection of people in the building,” Egnor says. “It was also nice to have something to work on at that time that was communal.”

The wall also serves as a memorial to Midgley, who died of cancer in 2014. Julie Simpson, a former Janelia Group Leader and Midgley’s partner, who helped create the original Inspiring Scientists gallery, contributed to the introduction for the new wall.

“Most important of all, we kept Frank Midgley’s memory alive,” Moorehead says. “When I was cross about using that old software, I thought of Frank. He was the kindest, sweetest, most decent human being. He meant so much to so many of us, so to walk past that wall, I can just see him and his eyes just lighting up.”