The Lennart Nilsson Award

The Lennart Nilsson Award Foundation was established in 1998 in recognition of the world-renowned Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson and his extraordinary body of work. It's main aim is to promote education, training and research within the medical, biological and engineering sciences through the use of images.

This is achieved through the Lennart Nilsson Award, an international award bestowed annually upon an individual in recognition of outstanding contributions within the realm of scientific photography. Award recipients are people who work in the spirit of Lennart Nilsson, revealing science to the world in beautiful, unique and powerful ways.

The nominees should fulfil the following criteria:

  • Work in the spirit of Lennart Nilsson
  • Make the invisible visible
  • Reveal sciences to the world in beautiful, unique and powerful ways
  • Visualize a scientific break through
  • Image reality in a surprising way

The awarded amount is SEK 100 000 and the prize ceremony will take place in connection with the installation ceremony for new professors at Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm.

Coloured scanning electron micrograph of ovarian cancer cells.
Coloured scanning electron micrograph of ovarian cancer cells. Photo: Stephen Gschmeissner

Prize winner 2021 - Stephen Gschmeissner

Scientific photographer Stephen Gschmeissner is one of the leading scanning microscopists in the world. He has a degree in zoology, and decades of experience in cancer research using scanning electron microscopy (SEM) at the Royal College of Surgeons and Cancer Research, UK. His technical competence with the microscopy equipment has produced the most beautiful pictures with amazing levels of detail.

Stephen Gschmeissner’s collection numbers well over 10,000 images, testifying to his inexhaustible curiosity and tireless search to make visible the invisible. His images have appeared in thousands of books and magazines in multiple languages all over the world. They can be found in scientific, medical and general interest publications, textbooks, corporate literature, advertising, exhibitions, fashion, music and art. The incredibly broad range and consistently high quality of the content is what marks this collection as a unique contribution to both science and art.

Stephen Gschmeissner and his images bring people to understand that nature is far more complex and beautiful than it appears at a first, superficial glance.


Stephen Gschmeissner is awarded the Lennart Nilsson Award 2021 for his creative and ingenious efforts that enabled new scientific breakthroughs and opened new windows for observations of life. As a scientific director and photographer specialized in microscopy, his commitment and deep knowledge also made a profound impact on the training of the next generation of scientific and educational leaders. This has led to many new scientific discoveries in several areas such as tumor biology and neuroscience. During his long and successful professional career, he has embraced the true spirit of Lennart Nilsson and meets all the criteria to receive the award.

Previous prize winners

Prize winner 2020 - Jan Huisken

Jan Huisken, Director of Medical Engineering at the Morgridge Institute, Madison, Wisconsin, is a pioneer in light-sheet microscopy who has made significant developments to the technique.

Light-sheet microscopy, also called SPIM (selective plane illumination microscopy), has revolutionized live imaging in biology. In a light-sheet microscope, the sample is illuminated with a thin sheet of light. The light-sheet can be swept rapidly through the sample, and is used to generate a three-dimensional image with high resolution. A distinct advantage with this technique is that low light levels are used, which makes it possible to image living organisms during long time periods. The resulting three-dimensional images are often breathtaking in both beauty and scientific relevance, particularly when coupled with long time lapse imaging, and have led to stunning results in e.g. developmental biology during the past decade.

With a background in optics and laser physics, Dr. Huisken has contributed to the development of light-sheet microscopy techniques with several innovative experimental setups that have generated a major impact on the life sciences. Light-sheet microscopy is today established as a central microscopy technique for many researchers worldwide and is used in a broad range of applications, in particular within developmental and plant biology.


Jan Huisken is awarded the 2020 Lennart Nilsson Award for his developments and creative use of selective plane illumination microscopy, also known as light-sheet microscopy. His ingenious efforts have enabled many new scientific breakthroughs and have permitted us to make observations of life that were previously not possible to imagine. His images and movies of living organisms are breathtaking, both in their scientific content and their artistic qualities.

Prize winner 2019 - Ed Boyden

Ed Boyden, Y Eva Tan Professor in Neurotechnology at the MIT Media Lab and McGovern Institute, and leader of the Synthetic Neurobiology Group, led the team that developed a new microscopy technique called expansion microscopy. With this technique his group, including then-graduate students Fei Chen and Paul Tillberg, made it possible to record images of biological preparations that were previously very difficult to study.

The technique is based on  physical expansion of the biological specimen, which also makes it transparent. By expansion, magnification is obtained even before the microscope is used.

Ed Boyden has with expansion microscopy, much like Lennart Nilsson, made the invisible visible and, with an artistic view, highlighted the beauty in microscopy preparations, in particular images of the brain's three-dimensional structure. His microscope images have, through their detail and beauty, provided a deeper understanding of the complexity of the brain for both laymen and experts.

Ed Boyden is awarded the prize for his development of expansion microscopy; a microscopy technique that makes the invisible visible and brings out the hidden details in microscopy preparations, beautifully demonstrated by studies of three-dimensional structures in the brain.

News article about the 2019 prize winner

Prize winner 2018 - Thomas Deerinck

Bio-artist and scientist Thomas Deerinck wins the 2018 Lennart Nilsson-award. He gets the prize for developing novel microscopy techniques and methods to improve the ability to obtain information from biological specimens.

Thomas Deerinck is a research scientist, technical specialist and bio-artist at the National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Reseach (NCMIR) and the Center for Research on Biological Systems at the University of California, San Diego.

Over the past four decades he has developed novel techniques and methods to improve our ability to obtain information from biological specimens using many types of microscopes. He has made many important contributions to the field of bioimaging, including key work on developing chemical, molecular and genetic tagging methods for studying cells and tissues by both light and electron microscopy.

Thomas Deerincks latest work is focused on improving serial block-face scanning electron microscopy; a method that is revolutionizing automated 3D imaging of cells and tissues at nanometer-scale resolution. He not only developed the now gold-standard protocol for preparing samples for this imaging technique, but also just recently co-developed a method to greatly extend the resolution and usefulness of this approach in the field of biomedical research.

Tom is married to the artist Karla Renshaw, who taught him to bring an artistic eye common to nature photography to scientific imaging with microscopes. The resulting images of even common everyday objects are turned from the invisible into beautiful works of art, and have appeared not only on the cover of numerous top tier scientific journals, but also in many non-scientific magazines, periodicals, documentaries as well as public art exhibitions.


Tom Deerinck is a microscopist from San Diego who works tirelessly in Lennart Nilsson's spirit with development of techniques and methods that make the invisible visible. He has given a long series of important contributions to the development of new methods in both light and electron microscopy. His images have often been decisive steps in pioneering research projects, and at the same time he has captured the beauty of the scientific content and turned it into works of art.

News article about the 2018 prize winner

Prize winner 2017 - Xiaowei Zhuang

Xiaowei Zhuang is the David B. Arnold Professor of Science at Harvard University and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator. In 2006, she pioneered a method that would go on to revolutionize the world of fluorescence microscopy.

She developed a single-molecule-based super-resolution light microscopy method called “Stochastic Optical Reconstruction Microscopy” or STORM. It overcame the diffraction limit and extended the spatial resolution of light microscopy by an order of magnitude to a few tens of nanometers.

News article about the 2017 prize winner

Prize winner 2016 - Alexey Amunts

Alexey Amunts, head of the Swedish cryo-EM laboratory at SciLifeLab and researcher in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at Stockholm University, is the recipient of the 2016 Lennart Nilsson Award for his pioneering work in the ongoing “Resolution Revolution”, using cryoelectron microscopy (cryo-EM) to visualize structures of individual proteins.

Cryo-EM led Alexey Amunts and his team to the first visualizations of a protein complex that regulates a cell’s energy budget, the mitoribosome, with extremely high resolution – at the atomic scale.

The method uses a highly focused electron beam to shoot electrons at biological samples, for example mitoribosomes, frozen in liquid nitrogen, at about –200°C. Hundreds of thousands of pictures of a single mitoribosome are combined with the help of computational analysis, and the final result is an extremely detailed three-dimensional model of the original biological structure.

2015 - Katrin Willig

Dr. Katrin Willig, junior research group leader at the Center for Nanoscale Microscopy and Molecular Physiology of the Brain (CNMPB) with affiliation at the Max Planck Institute for Experimental Medicine in Göttingen, Germany, is the recipient of the Lennart Nilsson Award 2015 for her groundbreaking contribution to the super-resolution microscopy of living cells.

News article about the 2015 prize winner

2014 - Timothy Behrens

Timothy Behrens, Professor of Computational Neuroscience at the University of Oxford is awarded the 2014 Lennart Nilsson Prize for crucial efforts for the advancement of diffusion MRI, a technique for creating high resolution images of the architecture of the human brain.

News article about the 2014 prize winner

2012 - Hans Blom

The 2012 Lennart Nilsson Award - this year a stipend - is awarded to Hans Blom, associate professor of biological physics at the Royal Institute of Technology, KTH and facility manager at the Science for Life Laboratory, Stockholm, to undertake a field trip to Harvard University to study and evaluate the microscopy techniques nanoSIMS and STORM.

News article about the 2012 prize winner

2011- Nancy Kedersha

The 2011 Lennart Nilsson Award is awarded to American biologist Nancy Kedersha for her colour pictures showing the inner life of a cell.

Press release

2010 - Kenneth Libbrecht

The 2010 Lennart Nilsson Award is awarded to the American physicist Kenneth Libbrecht for his images of snowflakes - images that open our eyes to the beauty of nature.

Press release

2009 - Carolyn Porco and Babak A. Tafreshi

The 2009 Lennart Nilsson Award is awarded to American planetary scientist Carolyn Porco and Iranian photographer and science journalist Babak A. Tafreshi for their photographic work, which - each from its own perspective - recalls mankind's place in the universe.

Press release

2008 - Anders Persson

The 2008 Lennart Nilsson Award is awarded to Swedish physician Anders Persson, MD, PhD, for his innovative techniques for capturing 3-D images inside the human body. These new techniques have proven particularly useful for post-mortem imaging, providing invaluable information for forensic investigation.

Press release

2007 - Felice Frankel

Research scientist Felice Frankel was the recipient of the 2007 Lennart Nilsson Award. In selecting Felice Frankel, the board of the Lennart Nilsson Foundation stated: "Those viewing Ms. Frankel's images are initially captivated by their form and colour. No sooner is their curiosity aroused than they want to know what the photograph depicts. She has thus fulfilled a scientific reporter's paramount task: to awaken people's interest and desire to learn."

Photographer Lennart Nilsson Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT

About Lennart Nilsson

Born in Strängnäs, Sweden, on August 24, 1922, Lennart Nilsson began his career as a freelance photojournalist. His work spans more than seven decades, beginning in the early 1940s when modern photojournalism made its breakthrough in Sweden.

His early photographic essays, including A Midwife in Lapland (1945), Polar Bear Hunting in Spitzbergen (1947), Congo (1948) and Sweden in Profile (1954) gained international attention through publication in leading photojournalism magazines such as Life, Picture Post and Illustrated.

In the 1950s, Nilsson began experimenting with new photographic techniques including macro- and microphotography, which led to the books, Ants (Myror) and Life in the Sea (Liv i hav).

In the 1960s, the use of specially designed, ultra-slim endoscopes made it possible for Nilsson to capture on film the inner workings of blood vessels and various cavities of the human body. The book A Child is Born (Ett barn blir till) first published in 1965 is undoubtedly Nilsson’s most famous work.

In the 1970s, Nilsson began to use the scanning electron microscope to capture images of the inner workings of the human body. This shift in the focus of his work gave Nilsson the opportunity to work on the premises of Karolinska Institute.

What remains remarkable is the combination of his unending patience to fully explore his subjects, combined with a journalist’s eye, artist’s sense of form and colour, and technician’s inventive skills to maximize available light and capture spectacular images.

In 1976 Lennart Nilsson was awarded an honorary doctorate at Karolinska Institutet. In 2009 he was given the title Professor’s name by the Swedish Government and in 2012 he was awarded the Karolinska Institutet Jubilee Medal (Gold class) for his long-standing and groundbreaking contributions to the development and innovative advancement of medical photography.

Lennart Nilsson passed away in January 2017.