The global pandemic ruined most of our plans for 2020, but it couldn’t keep graduate students around the world from setting their thesis research to dance, submitting videos produced in strict adherence to local COVID-19 restrictions. With a little help from his friends, Ivo Neefjes and Vitus Besel, Jakub Kubecka, a Finnish graduate student, won with a rap-based dance about the physics of atmospheric molecular clusters. Incorporating computer animation and drone footage, Kubecka beat out 40 other contestants to take top honors, as well as winning the physics category.
As we’ve reported previously, the Dance Your PhD contest was established in 2008 by science journalist John Bohannon. It was previously sponsored by Science magazine and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and is now sponsored by AI company Primer, where Bohannon is director of science. Bohannon told Slate in 2011 that he came up with the idea while trying to figure out how to get a group of stressed-out PhD students in the middle of defending their theses to let off a little steam. So he put together a dance party at Austria’s Institute of Molecular Biotechnology, including a contest for whichever candidate could best explain their thesis topics with interpretive dance.
The contest was such a hit that Bohannon started getting emails asking when the next such contest would be—and Dance Your PhD has continued ever since. It’s now in its thirteenth year. There are four broad categories: physics, chemistry, biology, and social science, with a fairly liberal interpretation of what topics fall under each.
Over the years, the quality of the videos has improved a bit—Bohannon recalled the first year’s winning video just had a postdoc chasing after a couple of graduates to demonstrate mouse genetics—as have the prizes offered. The overall winner now gets $2,000 (a princely sum for most grad students), along with a bit of geek glory, with the individual category winners snagging $750 each. The winner of the COVID-19 dance waltzed away with $500.
According to Kubecka, he co-wrote the music for his video with Neefjes and Besel and initially balked at the prospect of singing/rapping himself. “To prepare for recording the lyrics, I was running with headphones playing the music at least 30 times per day for the whole month to get it into my blood,” he said. “I think that I even dreamed about it.” Once the music was recorded, and the dance choreographed, they had to get permission to film the accompanying video—just as the COVID-19 situation in Finland was worsening.
They changed their plans so that the trio would never be in the same room with more than two additional people (an actor and a camera man) for the indoor footage. They performed a good chunk of the video outside, however. “In our infinite wisdom, we had decided that we would only wear short sleeve shirts throughout the video, which the Finnish winter weather made us suffer for,” said Kubecka. “Each outdoor shot started with us throwing away our jackets just off screen, performing the choreography, and then running to get our jackets again.” The radar at the local Finnish meteorological institute also interfered occasionally with the drone signal (“sometimes it would just fly away to the Baltic Sea”). But they persevered, and now they have $2,500 in prize money to show for it.
In the remaining categories, Fanon Julienne, a postdoc at the University of Le Mans in France, won the biology prize with her dance illustrating her thesis, entitled, “Fragmentation of plastics: effect of the environment and the nature of the polymer on the size and the shape of generated fragments.” Recent MIT PhD Mikael Minier, now a software engineer at WaveXR in Los Angeles, California, won the chemistry prize for his interpretation of his thesis on “Biomimetic Carboxylate-Bridged Diiron Complexes: From Solution Behavior to Modeling the Secondary Coordination Sphere.” Magdalena Dorner-Pau, a postdoc at the University of Graz in Austria, won the social sciences prize for a thesis entitled “Playful (De)Scribers: Examination of performative methods for the promotion of descriptive skills of children in linguistically diverse elementary school classes using the example of image description.”
As for the COVID-19 research prize, Heather Masson Forsythe, a graduate student at Oregon State University, won that category with an interpretive dance—performed solo on a beach, in the corridor outside her lab, and in the woods, among other locales—inspired by her thesis research on “Biochemical & Biophysical Studies of the COVID-19 Nucleocapsid Protein with RNA.” Forsythe uses nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) imaging to learn about one of the essential proteins encoded in the viral genome. That protein “plays critical roles in multiple processes of the infection cycle, including protecting and packaging viral RNA as a virus is assembled,” she explained in her description. “Likely drug treatments could target and disrupt the N-protein’s interactions with RNA, thereby disrupting the building of a virus and replication.”
Listing image by YouTube/Simu Group Helsinki