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The Many Ways to “Dance Your Ph.D”

Once again, researchers get creative in a yearly dance competition to explain their Ph.D. thesis work

The winning video featured hip hop dancers as farmers who put demands on the water supply (Screen shot from "Dance Your PhD 2015- Florence Metz" via YouTube.com)
smithsonian.com

Communicating scientific research can get challenging, but doctoral candidates spend years delving into the minutia of phenomena in biology, astronomy, chemistry or another field. It would be a shame for that work to stay locked up in the pages of journals, only to be appreciated by other experts. That’s why some researchers jump—and leap, spin or plié—at the chance to reach a wider audience with the Dance Your Ph.D. contest.

Every year, the American Association for the Advancement of Science hosts the contest and doles out $2500 worth in prizes to the winners in four categories: physics, chemistry, biology and social sciences. The best dance overall gets a trip to Stanford University. Past winners included dances that explored sperm competition and an arial interpretation of how tornados affect Appalachian mountain ecosystems.

For this year, the 8th annual contest, the top prize was scooped up by the winner of the social sciences category for the first time, reports John Bohannon for Science. Florence Metz of the University of Bern in Switzerland combined hip hop, salsa and acrobatic dancing styles to represent groups fighting over and then discussing water use and protection. In the video, Metz likens successful water policies to the choreography that helps unite diverse dancers.

Metz's dance was chosen from 32 teams’ submissions. Twelve entries made it to the final round. The other three category winners included, for physics, a tango explaining how photon pairs can be used in quantum information experiments.

The chemistry prize was awarded to a dance illustrating how white blood cells called neutrophils form toxic nets that destroy invading bacteria and other disease-causing agents. 

Finally, for biology, the award went to a co-choreographed performance about a molecule called tropoelastin’s interactions with cells to create an elastic scaffold for tissues like skin and arteries.

All the performances showcase the drama and excitement inherent in typically invisible processes of the body and the world. It just takes some creativity (and moves) to bring them to life.

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