Contest Puts Scientists' Bodies In Motion

Dance Contest

See videos of the contest winners.

John Bohannon has found a way to combine the emotion of dance with the excitement of PhD dissertations: It's called the "Dance Your PhD" competition, and the winners were announced this week. Bohannon describes the best bodies in motion.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

It's Isaac Newton's first law of motion, a body in motion will stay in motion unless acted on by an outside force. But what could put a scientist's body in motion? Would you believe a dance contest for Ph.Ds? It's this week's Science Out of the Box.

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SEABROOK: John Bohannon is a correspondent with Science magazine, and he's the creator of Dance Your Ph.D the contest. The rules - recreate your dissertation through interpretive dance and post the video on YouTube. The winners of the second Dance Your Ph.D competition were announced a few days ago. And John Bohannon is with us now from WGBH in Boston. John Bohannon, welcome to the show.

Mr. JOHN BOHANNON (Journalist, Science Magazine): Thanks.

SEABROOK: So tell me how you got started getting people to dance their dissertations?

Mr. BOHANNON: Well, the inspiration came from my experience at science conferences. So I was a biologist before I became a journalist and - have you ever been to science conference?

SEABROOK: Mm hmm.

Mr. BOHANNON: Have you ever been to a dance at a science conference?

SEABROOK: No.

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Mr. BOHANNON: OK, so I've been to a lot of these. Have you ever been to a wedding?

SEABROOK: Yes.

Mr. BOHANNON: So it's incredibly awkward, but then everyone gets drunk, and in spite of having a huge spread of ages and interest, everyone has the best time of their life usually.

SEABROOK: Yeah, dancing.

Mr. BOHANNON: And that's the experience that I've had with scientists. So, I knew that they could dance and have a lot of fun, but you have to create the occasion.

SEABROOK: The winning dance in the professor category is based on "Resolving Pathways of Functional Coupling in Human Hemoglobin Using Quantitative Low Temperature Isoelectric Focusing of Asymmetric Mutant Hybrids."

Mr. BOHANNON: Isn't it beautiful?

SEABROOK: And what's the name of this Ph.D?

Mr. BOHANNON: Vince LiCata.

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SEABROOK: OK, there are four people on their knees in red shirts dancing around with these white balls that they're passing around. What's going on?

Mr. BOHANNON: That's oxygen, and each of those dancers in this double pas de deux represent hemoglobin molecules that have to couple with each other in order to do their job of carrying oxygen in our blood. And what you can see there in the dance is old man frost running by and dumping snow on them every once in a while.

SEABROOK: Uh hmm.

Mr. BOHANNON: And then, right after that, another student runs by in the other direction and snaps a photo with a camera.

SEABROOK: Yeah.

Mr. BOHANNON: And that represents the technique he used.

SEABROOK: In other words, he took the hemoglobin molecules, cooled them down until they stop, and then took a picture of them?

Mr. BOHANNON: Essentially.

SEABROOK: OK, another winner. This one in the grad student category is "The Role of Vitamin D in Beta Cell Function."

Mr. BOHANNON: So this is Sue Lynn Lau from Australia, and she's studying diabetes. The problem with type two diabetes...

SEABROOK: It's the kind you acquire.

Mr. BOHANNON: That scientists are still trying to figure out.

SEABROOK: Uh hmm.

Mr. BOHANNON: Is why is it that these crucial cells in our pancreas, called the beta cells, stop doing their job?

SEABROOK: There's a woman that runs out on stage and lays down a towel and goes sunbathing.

Mr. BOHANNON: That's Sue Lynn. She later reappears as the sugar plum fairy delivering glucose to cells.

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SEABROOK: In the end, John Bohannon, I know it's fun to make scientists dress up in funny costumes and have fun interpreting their dissertations, their Ph.D's, but is there some bigger point to it?

Mr. BOHANNON: I have to admit, my primary motivation was just the hilarity of it. And I was surprised and delighted to see that at least half of these dances are rather moving. They're serious stuff, and so the idea is that the public will be engaged with science at a level that they usually don't encounter it.

SEABROOK: John Bohannon is a correspondent for Science magazine, and he's the creator of the Dance Your Ph.D competition. Thanks so much for talking to us.

Mr. BOHANNON: Oh, thanks, Andrea.

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