The D in PhD

(December 7th, 2015) Ballet, hiphop or acro yoga – complex, scientific issues can be explained through dance, or can they? We talked to this year's winners of the Dance your PhD contest to find out whether dance is really the right language when talking about science.

“On a cloudy Saturday morning, I am standing with 18 other meerkats on a small lawn in Zurich waiting for instructions. We are told to mimic the movements of the meerkats with the red hat, to stay together as a tight group, and to smile continuously. As soon as the music starts, the introvert Swiss neighbours see us dancing the group coordination of meerkats during foraging. Two weeks later, the video is submitted to the yearly Dance your PhD Competition.” In his TEDtalk of 2011, founder John Bohannon explains why he, with the financial support of Science magazine, has been encouraging scientists to dance their PhD research and be part of the global scientific dance-off. While dancers are twirling around him to illustrate his words, he tells the anecdote of a befriended physicist at MIT, struggling to explain his experiment that used lasers to cool down matter. “The more he said, the less I understood”.

The TED audience, on the other hand, has no difficulties in understanding the complex experiment, as John uses the power of dance to clarify the complicated concepts behind the experiment. “If you are trying to give someone the big picture of a complex idea, to really capture its essence, the fewer words you use, the better. In fact, the ideal might be to use no words at all.” Therefore, since 2008, an increasing number of scientists have been using interpretative dance to transmit their knowledge to the audience.
The competition has drastically changed over time. It started as a live event in Vienna, where the 12 contestants (including John Bohannon) were performing live on stage after explaining their research in 60 seconds. The scientists were using minimum props (the overall winner was dressed in a loin cloth) and simple theatrical movements to explain part of their research. Or, sometimes, to just amuse the audience, as surely dancing the Chicken Dance doesn’t explain the analysis of thymic nurse cells in the chicken
This year, however, the severe battlefield was comprised of 32 entries and the videos had to be submitted to Youtube, accompanied with a description of the content of the PhD dance. All participants had been highly creative, using a wide variety of dance styles and no effort was spared to bring the PhD message across: trained dancers, written text, animation, rap and graphics were extensively used. The overall conclusion when watching all the entries? The scientists actually managed to get a scientific message across while having visible fun.
“My main aim with this video was to make the people laugh. What I realised afterwards was that the video had more impact than just being funny,” says Florence Metz, the winner of this year. The recently graduated political scientist from the University of Bern is the first social scientist ever to be the overall winner. In her 10-minute video, she explains the intricate network around water protection policy, using the dance styles she is trained in for the different actors involved: hiphop, salsa, house and acro yoga. “Acro yoga represents the environmental groups, as acro yoga is about balance, and environmentalists fight for a balanced relationship to the environment.”
All the winners have put severe thought into the appropriate dance style to best represent and capture the essence of their PhD research. As Pearl Lee, the Biology winner from the University of Sydney working on the molecule tropoelastin, explains, “I used ballet and hiphop to contrast and emphasise the difference between tropoelastin and the cells/integrins.” But there was more to her video than her description on Youtube explained. “There was a lot of detail that you only realise if you dig deeper into the science. For example, I chose taller dancers as ‘hydrophobic’, since the hydrophobic sequence in tropoelastin is longer than the hydrophilic regions.”
Jyaysi Desai, the Chemistry winner and Audience favourite, chose Indian contemporary fusion to explain her research on the molecular nets of DNA and protein that white blood cells use to trap bacteria in infection sites. Over the phone, this student from the Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich enthusiastically explains that she likes solving puzzles, “To simplify a complex idea while still capturing the whole concept and conveying the larger point of view, is a creative and satisfying process similar for the Arts and Sciences. And to then bring it all together with the music and dancers in an informative entertaining flow is like connecting all the pieces in a big puzzle.”
Oxford-student Merritt Moore, professional ballerina and the Physics winner in this year, has always tried to prove to people that it is possible to pursue both a career in the Arts as well as in the Sciences. In fact, the process of breaking down the scientific concepts for a clear explanation of it through dance, can help the scientist to understand their own research better and process the subject in a different way, giving new perspectives and more clarity. “I think that the Arts and Sciences can feed off one another and make you a better scientist/artist by nurturing both.” Why her combination of classical ballet with tango to explain her research on entangled photons won? “Because there’s nothing that gets people going like non-linear crystal entangled photon production.”
Is John Bohannon thus right? Does dance really make Science easier to understand, and is it able to explain complex problems? Well, just as any graphic tool, it aids in the understanding but you have to know, which story you’re watching to be able to see it. All winners agreed that dance is a language able to communicate all types of information but that words were essential in this contest to give a background to the dances, to make it understandable and to increase the appreciation of the art. A dance alone would have been a mere visual representation of an interpretation of the subject: the combination with words makes it more effective.

Scientists, be brave enough, dare to have fun and embrace the Dance your Ph.D. contest to get your results communicated to the general public in a different way than you and they are used to. Give the public what is their right to have: your results. And as the audience winner of this year puts it, “If you do not manage to get a paper in this dream journal [Science], you should at least manage to get a video in it.”

Hedwig Ens

Photo: Yukihiro

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