San Diego students explore immunology through art

Celebrating the annual LJI Art of the Immune System Student Competition

Once again, San Diego students have come up with eye-catching ways to show how immune system research and medical science impact our lives. 

Illustration of a heart with flowers growing out of it. Some flowers are losing petals and wilting.

“Healthy Heart. A Tribute to Tio Pablo.” By Elisa “Isa” Asnani. Click to see full size.

For this year’s Art of the Immune System Student Competition, organized by La Jolla Institute for Immunology (LJI), local students ages 10 to 17 submitted striking pieces that demonstrate how science and art can go hand-in-hand. The competition, now in its third year, had two categories in 2023. Students ages 10 to 13 competed in the “Junior Immunologist” category, and students ages 14 to 18 competed in the “Senior Immunologist” category.

The first place winner of the Junior Immunologist category was Elisa “Isa” Asnani, age 11, of High Tech Explorer Point Loma. Asnani used acrylic paint on canvas for her piece, titled “Healthy Heart. A Tribute to Tio Pablo.” 

Asnani says the competition was a chance to practice blending colors on canvas. She also took time to learn more about the anatomy of the heart—and show the organ in an unusual way. “I used the heart as the cloud and the blood cells as rain,” says Asnani.

The first place winner for the Senior Immunologist category was Judith Kang, age 16, of Westview High School. Kang used watercolors for a piece titled “Lost Childhood,” which depicts the emotions surrounding a close childhood friend who was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year.

Kang says she relied on contrasting colors to emphasize the impact of cancer in the friend’s life. “Because of her weak immune system and energy, she experienced a loss of freedom, as she was not permitted to leave her hospital bed. Because she has a February birthday, she missed out on her birthday; she was the happiest during her birthday,” says Kang. “The dull and gray colors of her room and the hospital bed symbolize her unhappiness with her life when she was stuck in the hospital. However, her past self, shown in the mirror, reflects on how she would have celebrated her birthday.”

Watercolor painting of a girl in a hospital bed. She is on a computer and has gone bald from cancer therapy. A mirror shows her looking happy and healthy, holding a birthday cake

“Lost Childhood.” by Judy Kang. Click to see full size


As the competition winners, Asnani and Kang will both receive an Ultimate Dual Microscope, manufactured by National Geographic, and an engraved plaque from LJI. Their work will also be featured in the Fall 2023 issue of LJI’s Immune Matters magazine.

The second place winner of the Junior Immunologist category was Eleanor Boster, age 11, of Albert Einstein Middle School. Boster used colored pencil for a piece titled “Asthma Makes the World Gray.”


Pencil and colored pencil illustration of lungs surrounded by colorful swirls

“Asthma Makes the World Grey,” by Eleanor Boster. Click to see full size


The third place winner of the Junior Immunologist category was Amrin B., age 10, of Del Sur Elementary. Amrin used pencil and colored pencil to show how washing hands can combat pathogens such as SARS-CoV-2.


Illustration of lungs, a fist hitting a virus, red blood cells, and a bottle of soap squirting onto a hand. Text reads "Wash your hands"

“The cycle,” by Amrin B. Click to see full size


For the Senior Immunologist category, second place went to Aspen Cotton, age 16, of Westview High School. Cotton used wood burning techniques to capture the never-ending battle between pathogens and the immune system in a piece titled “Surrounded.”

“The outstretched hand of the figure is meant to represent the way that our bodies stop harmful germs in their tracks, while the battle between white blood cells and the viruses show that while the germs are inside of us, we are still being protected,” says Cotton. “I’ve always found it fascinating how much danger we face everyday, and how much we have to thank evolution, and new medical technology, for our continued safety.”


A circle of wood from a section of tree stump. Brown lines show a person with a surgical mask on. They have a hand outstretched to ward away the surrounding pathogens.

“Surrounded,” by Aspen Cotton. Click to see full size


The third place winner of the Senior Immunologist category was Keira Casey, age 16, of Sage Creek High School. Casey used digital painting techniques in the Procreate app to create a piece titled “Microglial cells.”

“My painting is depicting an old woman in front of microglial cells,” says Casey. “I chose to paint an old woman because microglial cells play a role in the development of Alzheimer’s, and I wanted to show the people who would be helped by the study of the brain’s immune system.”


Digital illustration of an older woman. She looks at viewer. Microglial cells make up the background

“Microglial cells,” by Keira Casey. Click to see full size.


All second and third place winners will also be highlighted in Immune Matters magazine this Fall.

The goals of the Art of the Immune Student Competition are to connect LJI with the San Diego community and to inspire local students to think creatively about immune system research and the possibilities of medical science. 

As Cotton explains, the competition was a chance to learn about new aspects of health. “While looking for references for the germs in the air, I was extremely surprised at how many different types there were,” says Cotton. “I specifically found out about the bacteriophage, which was very visually and scientifically interesting.”

The 2023 competition was judged by a team of visual arts professionals and researchers at LJI: Jenna Hambrick, Alison Tarke, Ph.D., Samuel Myers, Ph.D., Clare Grotting, Sonja Arnold, and Matthew Ellenbogen.