Dance Your Ph.D: Scientists Explain Their Work Using Interpretive Dance

Dancers in black leotards twirl languidly on ropes over a wooden floor, then find themselves decked out in neon and gyrating to dubstep music. It's definitely not what you picture when you imagine learning about mathematics—but that's precisely what you'll be doing watching the video, which won this year's "Dance Your Ph.D." contest.

For 10 years now, one of the largest science groups in the nation has sponsored the contest that asks early-career scientists to explain what they spend so many hours and days studying, in what is perhaps the polar opposite of super dense, super technical scientific papers: interpretive dance. Today, they announced the winners, which are broken out by scientific field.

The overall winner, Nancy Scherich, a doctoral student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, explained her work with braid theory, a subset of topology, a type of geometry. Making the video, she drew on past experience in musical theater and with costume construction.

In the video, aerial dancers representing braids interact with each other to explain basic principles at play. Then they are all escorted backstage and inspected by a man labeled representation, which is the term for a process that converts a braid's information into a matrix (no trench coat required, but it does send the braid dancers into a neon-decorated dance space blaring techno music).

Braids rejected by translation become kernels, information escorted away from the neon space—unless they can escape and hide themselves in the neon-bedazzled matrix, where mathematicians like Scherich hunt for them.

The winner of the chemistry category and the online "audience favorite" vote was directed by Natalia Oliveira, who studies biosensors at the Federal University of Pernambuco in Brazil.

In the video, Oliveira presents a crime scene and its forensic investigative team looking to identify human body fluids left behind. She's working to create a biosensor that can identify DNA in those fluids, even when someone has tried to wash it away with a chemical-like bleach or alcohol. The video ends with a criminal caught by the biosensor being carried away in handcuffs.

The biology winner, Monica Moritsch at the University of California, Santa Cruz, presents a jazz-age inspired dance of sea stars and the mussel populations they keep in check.

Until sea star wasting disease came along in 2013 and 2014, that is, killing off the sea stars and letting mussels flourish and take over the neighborhood. Now, the sea stars have stopped dying, but scientists like Moritsch are still watching to see whether they'll rebound strongly enough to get mussel populations back in line.

The last winner, representing social sciences, is Judit Petervari at Queen Mary University in the U.K., who studies how creativity works.

The video is filmed in a loft space slowly furnished by dancers representing qualities of creative ideas that a person can evaluate to decide whether an idea is worth pursuing. Non-experts balance those criteria through a long analysis of give and take as they're swayed by each factor, with usefulness eventually being weighted more strongly than originality. Experts, like the one shown at the end of the dance, make their judgments much faster and according to a pre-established ranking of different qualities.

11_01_scientists_dance_phd This year, 50 scientists submitted videos using interpretive dance to explain their research. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The competition is designed both to help scientists communicate their work and to show the public a new way of looking at science. "It is an unfortunate truth that most people don’t like mathematics or are terribly afraid of it," contest winner Scherich wrote on her website about why she decided to participate. "Using dance to describe math can help women to see that mathematics is a realm that women can strive in, and similarly that dance is a respected field for men."

Best of all, submissions that didn't win are still available to watch on YouTube, so now's your chance to learn about interactions between parents and children, dark energy or ergonomics—without even getting up from your chair.

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