Dancing Their Way to the Top… of Academia

11-3-14 Dance Your PhD 1
A screenshot from Hans Rinderknecht's 'Dance Your Ph.D.' contest video on nuclear fusion. Hans Rinderknecht

Every year since 2007, doctoral candidates have traded jargony text for tights, statistics for dance styles, and deductive reasoning for fancy footwork, all in an effort to translate their dissertations into a competitive dance-off.

The overall winner of the 2014 “Dance Your Ph.D.” contest, announced Monday, kicked it up a notch, using a flying trapeze to put her work as a doctoral biology student, “Alterations to plant-soil feedbacks after severe tornado disturbance,” into motion.

A New Orleans native, Uma Nagendra’s doctoral research at the University of Georgia was inspired by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and looks at how the “natural world recovers from disasters,” according to the announcement in Science—which along with its publisher, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and HighWire Press, sponsors the annual contest.

In her video, Nagendra and five fellow aerialists sport bright green tights as they represent seedlings, twisting and turning on ropes in an effort to show “how several different species of tree seedlings in the southern Appalachian Mountains interact with soil organisms—and how tornadoes might mix things up,” according to her description. The video depicts a tornado coming through an undisturbed forest, she explains, disrupting pathogens that accumulate in the soil near tree roots and altering the forest environment.  

Nagendra’s video won the biology category as well as the overall 2014 title. Winners were also announced in physics, chemistry, and social science categories, as well as in an online audience vote.

Previous winners reviewed entries for this year’s contest for their artistic and scientific merit and whittled down the list to a dozen finalists, which were announced last Monday. A group of judges—which included both scientists and artists, both independent and affiliated with institutions like MIT, Harvard, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Pilobolus dance theater—made the final selections.

“Dance is a…universal medium,” says Hans Rinderknecht, a Ph.D. student at MIT whose video won the physics category. The competition gives contestants the opportunity to take their work “out of this very abstract, very mathematical place and [put] it into a form where people can relate.”

It not only helps explain the fundamental ideas of research in a context where people don’t feel intimidated by it, he says, but it also presents a good challenge for scientists, helping them to better communicate their ideas.

Rinderknecht, who has studied ballet and particularly modern dance, was drawn to the contest because of the connection he sees between physics and dance. His video, taped live at a performance at MIT’s Simmons Hall in April of this year, shows how light is used to create nuclear fusion. Rinderknecht dances “The Scientist,” about someone who first demonstrates the difficulty fusing fuel ions that repel one another, then realizes light is the solution, and finally puts it all together.

The video might be a lot easier to get through than his dissertation, titled: "Studies of Non-Hydrodynamic Processes in Inertial Confinement Fusion Implosions on OMEGA and the NIF."

Rinderknech says people often assume they won’t be able understand anything about his work when he tells them he’s a physicist. Venanzio Cichella, a physics student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne, agrees, saying explaining things through dance can help. Cichella’s video on “time-critical cooperative path following of multiple multirotors UAVs” won the online audience vote.

“On campus I have a lot of friends with different backgrounds. When people ask me what did I do, I just say I make robots dance in coordination,” says Cichella. “I think it’s the easiest way to make people understand what I actually do.”

Winners in each of the four fields—Rinderknecht for physics, Saioa Alvarez of the University of the Basque Country in Spain for chemistry, David Manzano Cosano of Complutense University of Madrid in Spain for social science, and Nagendra for biology—receive $500. Nagendra, the overall winner, gets an additional $500 and a free trip to Stanford University in the spring of 2015 to screen her short film.

“If everybody who does complicated research in science will have a chance to express their research, not necessarily in dance even, but in something easier that can reach everybody,” Cichella tells Newsweek, “that would be awesome, because science and progress will be open to everybody.”

The winning videos:

Biology and Overall: Uma Nagendra

Physics: Hans Rinderknecht

Chemistry: Saioa Alvarez

Social Science: David Manzano Cosano

Online Audience Vote: Venanzio Cichella