Science on the Dance Floor

(November 7th, 2014) The popular “Dance your PhD” contest recently announced this year’s winner. But winning isn’t everything. We spoke with the two finalists in the biology category about the artistic side of research.

So you think you can dance…your PhD? Did we hear a yes? Well, the “Dance Your Ph.D.” Contest, inviting scientists from all over the world to explain their doctoral research through dance, could be just the thing for you. But how can you take science from the lab to the dance floor? Ina Kirmes and Patrizia Tavormina gave us an insider’s look.

Kirmes, from the Institute of Molecular Biology in Mainz, Germany, has explored the “Epigenetics of cardiac ischemia-reperfusion-injury” in her video; while Tavormina from the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium has focused on “Unravelling the biological role of novel, stress-induced peptides in Arabidopsis thaliana”.

Entering the contest was a natural decision for both. “I was already a fan of ‘Dance your Ph.D.’ and the lab parodies on YouTube, showing the (sometimes sad and desperate) daily lab business from a funny side of view. Sometimes, it helps to see how PhD students all over the world struggle with the same things. My institute encouraged PhD students to participate in the contest and so I decided to go for it, great opportunity!” narrates Kirmes.

Tavormina has delved in classical ballet, art school, playing the piano, composing and singing from a young age. “Between science and art there is one important link according to me: creativity. I strongly believe that pure creativity is an important aspect of science, and a basis for new and truly innovative ideas. Dance your Ph.D. gives me the opportunity to combine science and art, my work and hobbies.”

Producing the video was no walk in the park (nor a skip and a hop on the dance floor) for either researcher. Tavormina put in all her summer holiday weekends to work on the music (which she composed herself), choreography and organisation for the piece that she had been planning since Christmas. She finally had three half days to get all participants together, teach the dancers and record. While handcrafting a white DNA helix late at night for a critical scene in black light, she realised that she had used the wrong paper, and had to start all over again!

For a scene mimicking transcription in black light, her sisters dressed in black, stuck pieces of white fabric with Velcro between the whirling dancers to attach them together. “Some people thought I had created the effect with a computer programme but it was all live performance!” She shares, “The novelties I discovered in my research did not appear in a chronological order. I found pieces of the ‘puzzle’ but the ‘puzzle’ is far from complete and, therefore … I filled the gaps in the ‘puzzle’ with hypotheses, because this is an essential basis to develop new experiments.”

Planning, took up a major chunk of Kirmes’s time too. She recalls, “The video shoot only took two evenings and the requisites we tinkered a few hours before. We already had an idea, a song and choreography in early spring. Since time is rare for PhD students, we didn’t do rehearsals before shooting. I had to convince my poor colleagues to wear the quite ugly and uncomfortable ‘histone hats’, consisting of tights stiffed with balloons and then synchronise them in their moves.”

“Not as easy as it sounds, we produced many out-takes! But the hardest part was actually getting the people together. Short-term, I had to fill the gaps with some summer students!” Post shooting, she rechecked the rules and realised that she would have to reshoot due to music royalty issues. “A new song meant a new choreography. So there are actually two versions of my dance!”

Both Kirmes and Tavormina rightly see this experience as something larger than just a contest. “For me, making this video was a way to look at my research from a distance and from a completely different perspective. I found this very enriching and enjoyed it deeply. I hope it inspires scientists to look for their own method to reach this effect. Nowadays, we are ‘drowning’ in a ‘publish or perish’ culture in science. Let us remember how essential ‘creativity’ and ‘freedom’ are for truly innovative and impactful research,” emphasises Patrizia Tavormina.

“Translating my project into something, which ideally everyone would understand made me think of how scientists can make their work more accessible to others (non-scientists as well as scientists from other fields). A lot of us are doing great research but we need to find a way to communicate it. Unfortunately, due to overstimulation by the animated, loud and colourful world we live in, it’s getting harder and harder to listen to someone presenting black bar charts on a white PowerPoint background,” concludes Kirmes elegantly.

All finalist videos in each category (Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Social Sciences) can be viewed here. The overall winner, announced on November 3rd, was Uma Nagendra from the University of Georgia, USA, with “Alterations to plant-soil feedbacks after severe tornado disturbance”. Congratulations to all participants and winners!

Latika Bhonsle

Picture: Dance your Ph.D.

Last Changes: 12.11.2014