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:
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 ;)”: