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Einsteins dance: Canadians make finals in global PhD footwork contest

A screengrab from Carleton University student Erin McConnell's PhD video.

Canadian Press

So you think you can dance, Einstein?

Two Canadian scientists are among 16 finalists in this year's edition of a growing international competition that uses PhD theses as inspiration for dance videos.

"The goal of the contest is to be able to portray your research in a way that's fun to watch and that's easy to understand," said Erin McConnell, a Carleton University biochemist. Her thesis "DNA Aptamers as a Tool for Studying Mental Health Disease" is surprisingly well-expressed through a blend of hip-hop, ballet and Highland fling.

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The annual Dance Your Thesis contest attempts to use dance to bridge the gap between science and the public — and lets scientists blow off a little steam after too many hours in the lab.

Contest originator John Bohanon, a science journalist and occasional Harvard researcher, said it all began as a way to liven up a 2007 New Year's Eve party.

"I wanted it to be a dance party, but scientists are like everyone — you either need a lot of alcohol or a bizarre party theme to lighten the mood," he said. "I figured it would be really fun to have everyone compete by explaining their PhD research in dance form."

Bohanon wrote a brief item for Science magazine, posted a little video from the evening and a scientific revolution was born.

"Over the next few months I started getting these emails from scientists around the world wondering when the next Dance Your PhD thesis was," Bohanon said. "There was never any plan for it, but I guess I struck a nerve."

This year's edition had 55 entries from the United States, Canada, Europe, India and Australia. Dance Your PhD is now sponsored by TEDx Brussels, part of a global network of speakers and events based on new ideas.

The winner gets $1,000, a trip to Brussels for an awards ceremony and undying fame among a small, select company. The winner is to be chosen Thursday.

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Each dance must be based on the entrant's PhD thesis and the author must be one of the dancers.

This year's entrants range from the high spirits of McConnell's piece — danced by scientists wearing tutus and Mickey Mouse ears — to the other Canadian entry from Queen's University's Ellen Ware.

Her "A Study of Social Interactivity Using Pigeon Courtship" is an oddly beautiful, black-and-white pas de deux that wouldn't look out of place in the repertoire of a modern dance company.

Other PhD theses that have inspired dances in this year's contest are "Fullerene-Based Systems for Optical Spin Readout," "X-Ray Crystal Structure of Human Protein Phosphatase" and "Microstructure-Property Relationships in Ti2448 Components Produced by Selective Laser Melting: A Love Story."

Quite apart from their value in helping young researchers make it through the stress of earning their doctorates, the dance videos actually do explain the science.

"A lot of my friends sent me a message or called me and they said, 'I've heard you explain your research 100 times. And watching this video, this is the first time I've actually understood what you do,' " said McConnell, whose lab was one of last year's winners.

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The video of that dance is now being used as a teaching tool by others in the field, she said.

"We really just wanted to have fun doing it. But then to see how it can get integrated into teaching people, it's really exciting."

The contest teaches scientists how to communicate their work, Bohanon said.

"(I've got to) give up the idea that I'm going to cram in as much detail as possible. I've just got to decide on some essence to capture. And how can I do this in a way that you'll remember, that's compelling, that will give you an emotional response?

"That's where the art comes in."

That bridge between the arts and the sciences is another important aspect of Dance Your PhD, said Bohanon.

"When you inject the arts into any idea, it becomes orders of magnitude more interesting."

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