Getting Down to Their Dissertations

An international contest gets scientists to share their research through dance.

November 20, 2008, 2:28 PM

Nov. 20, 2008— -- It's not every day that world-class scientists trade in their lab coats and test tubes for spandex and hula hoops.

It was all part of a contest created by the journal Science and the American Association for the Advancement of Science that challenged scientists and graduate students around the world to choreograph dances that represent their Ph.D theses and then post them on YouTube.

Masters of physics and biology turned to moves from breakdancing to ballet to express their work.

John Bohannon, the science journalist and former biologist who came up with the Dance Your Ph.D. competition, said the goal was to make science more accessible and shatter the image of the scientist as the dull and humorless geek.

The idea came from his own conference-going days, Bohannon said, when he'd watch a wee bit of alcohol push scientists from "wedding-like awkwardness" to Fred Astaire-like ease.

"What I noticed was that there's always this tipping point with scientists where they all really have fun and cut loose. And it kind of goes against the stereotype of the scientist as the dry, nerdy pencil neck. And so I wanted to demonstrate to the world that scientists really can dance," said Bohannon.

From his post as a visiting scholar at Harvard University, he rallied about 100 scientists from as far away as Australia to simplify a thesis on, for example, "Single Molecule Measurements of Protelomerase TelK-DNA Complexes" into a fiery tango.

The contest was announced six weeks ago and attracted 36 individual and group submissions. On Thursday, Science magazine will announce the four winners, who will work with professional choreographers to turn their research into a full-scale production to debut at the AAAS annual meeting in February 2009.

Miriam Sach, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of California at San Diego, was thrilled about the opportunity to combine two personal interests -- science and dance -- and reach past the narrow confines of the scientific community.

Her modern dance, based on her research on how the brain processes regular and irregular verbs, was one of the winning submissions. With simple steps, jumps, slides and turns, she demonstrated that the brain uses the same neural network to process different kinds of verbs.

"Usually science only approaches a few people. Just to bring it into a broader perspective, I thought was very amazing," she said. "Usually science is so highly specialized. It was a challenge to bring this into an expression that a lot of people can understand."

Christin Murphy, a graduate student at the University of South Florida College of Marine Science, took a different approach.

To share her research on "Hydrodynamic Trail Detection in Marine Organisms," she used ... hula hoops.

Hydrodynamic trails are created when water animals -- like lobsters -- move through the water. Detecting these water vortices is crucial for underwater creatures that use the information to prey on other organisms or avoid predators, Murphy said.

She's been a dancer for most of her life and has been hula hooping for the past few years. When she had a chance to dance to her work, the hoops immediately came to mind. She donned a sparkling spandex suit and, to a Beach Boys medley, twirled away.

"It's fun and visual and makes it really accessible in the community and outside the community," Murphy said.

By watching videos posted by the competition, she said that she herself learned information that she wouldn't otherwise encounter.

"They're not articles I would have read, but I will certainly remember the dances," she continued.

Other winning submissions include a modern dance piece on the "molecular dance in the blood," a lively twist on the role of vitamin D in beta-cell function and a physics tango that won the popular choice category with more than 14,000 visits.

All the entries are posted online at the contest's Web site.

Bohannon hopes to secure enough funding to support a world tour that will allow the scientists to share their work with an international audience.

"I'm half joking when I say my point was that scientists can dance. The real mission here actually is to reach out to the public, to find new ways to explain vital scientific issues that are sometimes so abstruse that they get lost in the media," Bohannon told

"And so I thought, what better way to cut through the problem of jargon than to completely cut out language. Just use your body and music to explain your science."

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