Dance Your Ph.D.

By Vladimir Brezina and Johna Till Johnson

It’s the question every science graduate student dreads:  “So, what’s your Ph.D. research about?” You take a deep breath and begin. People’s eyes glaze over…

The problem isn’t that your life’s work is uninteresting. It’s that the conventional way to explain it can be limiting:  Words can only get so far.  What if there were a better way to tell your story? Something like…  interpretive dance!

The first “Dance Your Ph.D.” contest was organized in 2008 by John Bohannon, the “Gonzo Scientist” of GonzoLabs and a contributing correspondent covering the intersection of science, culture, and art for Science magazine (“who, in true gonzo style, will participate in the events he covers”). Since then, the contest has become an annual event sponsored by Science. For the 2011 contest, 55 dances were submitted “covering everything from psychology to astrophysics,” and the winners have just been announced.

The contest recognizes the best dance interpretations of scientific doctoral work. The rules are very simple. Each dance has to be based on a scientist’s Ph.D. research, and that scientist has to be part of the dance. Beyond that,

[a] panel of judges will score each Ph.D. dance with 3 parameters: scientific merit, artistic merit, and creative combination of the science and art. Basically, to win this contest, you have to impress the judges. Some of them are scientists, some of them are artists. Your dance has to convey something essential about your Ph.D. research. Whatever that is, the judges need to “get it”. But you also have to make something that is fun to watch. Sure, it can be funny. But if so, it should also be impressively creative.

Interpretive dance in science goes way back. Vlad still remembers seeing movies, choreographed Busby-Berkeley-style, of hundreds of students acting out the interactions of molecules inside a cell. How else to interest bored, hung-over undergraduates in Biochemistry 101 on a Monday morning? Here’s a well-known example from 1971, “imprinted with the ‘free love’ aura of the period”:

Some of the “Dance Your Ph.D.” entrants still take this approach. But overall there’s a huge variety of styles, ranging from the professionally polished:

to the endearingly absurd:

Here are winners from 2008, 2010, and 2011—this year’s grand prize winner!—respectively:

(Here are all the 2009, 2010, and 2011 entrants.)

And speaking of science-related dance: Anyone who’s ever been stuck in the Science Project  From Hell will appreciate “Bad Project”, a spot-on parody of Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance :

I want good data
a paper in Cell
but I got a project straight from Hell…
I want to graduate in less than five years
but there ain’t no getting out of here

Be sure to check out the costumes—total genius!

As Vlad’s ex-graduate student said, “So much wisdom and insight in only 5 minutes ;)”:

9 responses to “Dance Your Ph.D.

  1. Pingback: On Being Versatile | composerinthegarden

  2. Pingback: Versatile Blogger Award | Wind Against Current

  3. This is fantastic. Dancing science. I found it particularly interesting that I was drawn to read this post among the dozens you have and the first dance scenario I watched, the Lady Gaga Parody was about the Western Blot – the infamous test that has caused so much pain in the Lyme community. Maybe this dance sort of explains why the test is so bad – yah, where’s the bands? I might have to share this link in the Lyme support groups – gotta have some humor.


    • Glad you liked it! The Lady Gaga parody is especially good, I think….

      BTW, don’t blame the Western blot method itself—it’s a standard tool in many areas of biology these days that in itself works fine. Kind of like using a screwdriver. The issue is more whether the tool is appropriate and can work to solve the problem at hand…


      • Yes, understood – good explanation, thanks. In this case it is trying to oversimplify the tool for a complex organism by having a too narrow set of bands in anticipation of then using it to measure the results of treatments or vaccines. Unfortunately it is then inappropriately used as the holy grail in diagnosis and overshadowing the clinical observations. I did then notice this was a project on Alzheimer’s which btw, Lyme is being looked at as one cause of since the brain is one place Borellia really likes to live. (Trust me, it does not feel good to have Borellia in one’s brain. The impacts are quite frightening.)


  4. Too funny! My son-in-law is Ph.D (computation chemistry) and I have to share this with him.



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