Future Tense

You Move Like a Sex-Crazed Fruit Fly

John Bohannon just wanted to convince a group of drunken scientists to dance. It was January 2008, and Bohannon, a biologist and correspondent for the journal Science, was helping plan a party at the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology that would be filled with Ph.D. students “in the middle of the worst of the Ph.D. experience,” he recalls. “It’s where you’ve had to defend and explain your Ph.D. research so many times that you’ve grown to hate it.” Try talking to a Ph.D. student about his subject and you’ll get “complexity mixed as a cocktail with vile frustration,” Bohannon says. A couple of weeks before the party, he hatched a plan to ignite a dance party and ease the inevitable conversation tension. He created a dance contest in which his peers could explain their studies with an interpretative dance, and advertised it with posters around the institute.  

As an enticement, he persuaded his editor at Science to reward the winner a free one-year subscription. For broke grad students, a prize valued at more than $100 was motivation enough. Bohannon later wrote about the impromptu event for Science, and emails asking, “when’s the next Ph.D. dance contest?” filled Bohannon’s inbox. They rolled in for months. The people had spoken, and the Dance Your Ph.D. video contest was born.  

Now in its fourth year, the contest has evolved since its intoxicated genesis. For one thing, the prize is grander: This year’s grand prize winner, revealed today, won $1,000 and a trip to Belgium to be honored at TEDxBrussels in November. Three others won $500.  

As the stakes have been raised, the wannabe dance stars have had to up their game—and production values. In one of the original party videos, “this post doc was literally stumbling around on stage chasing these two grad students,” Bohannon says. “I think it was about mouse genetics.” This year, 55 scientists from around the world showcased advanced choreography, complex cinematographic techniques, and, oh yeah, brilliant science. The winning entries, which you can watch below, artfully interpreted research on fruit fly sex, pigeon courting, X-ray crystallography, and titanium alloys produced by lasers. All participants must dance in their own videos.

Grand prize winner Joel Miller, a biomedical engineer at the University of Western Australia, played the superhero-like protagonist in his ethereal stop-gap animation video. He interpreted his Ph.D. work—creating titanium alloy hip replacements—as a love story between titanium and bone. With no video camera to use, Miller and his dance partners shot 2,200 still photos of the dance and transformed the images into animation. That platform allowed him and the two other dancers to seemingly fly and slide across a park.

So how did a drunken party stunt become the So You Think You Can Dance? of the Ph.D. crowd? “There are a lot of people in academics who like to do some kind of comedy or dance or music at night,” says contest judge Brian Wecht, a theoretical physicist at Harvard University and a member of the two-man comedy band Ninja Sex Party.

But it’s more than just a science community in-joke, says Bohannon. The contest’s secret mission is to elucidate complex scientific concepts, a critical service because “scientists usually suck at explaining their work.” Even Bohannon, who has a Ph.D. in molecular biology from Oxford University, has benefited from the videos. “If you watch these Ph.D. dances and read the text that each scientist provided as a guide, you can’t help but learn a hell of a lot of science,” he says. “It could’ve been just funny, and that would’ve been awesome. But it turns out it’s actually kind of useful.”

Could someone without a Ph.D. in molecular biology also learn something from the videos (read: me)? I was skeptical, for example, that I would pick up any new concepts from winner Cedric Tan’s video, “Smell-Mediated Response to Relatedness of Potential Mates.”

Tan’s dance taught me more than I ever wanted to know about the incestuous qualities of fruit-fly mating. (Not that I ever wanted to know anything  on the topic …) I bet you didn’t know that “females preferentially mate with males that are related to the first mates.” They like to sleep with one guy, then his brother. Why? “[T]here might be immunological and survival costs associated with mating with males that are unrelated to their first mate.” Now if only they could create a dance video to explain to me how the Large Hadron Collider works.

Here are the four winners of this year’s dance-off.

All-around: “Microstructure-Property relationships in Ti2448 components produced by Selective Laser Melting,” by Joel Miller, University of Western Australia

Chemistry: “X-Ray Crystal Structure of Human Protein Phosphatase,” by FoSheng Hsu, Cornell University

Biology: “Smell-Mediated Response to Relatedness of Potential Mates,” by Cedric Tan, University of Oxford

Social science: “A Study of Social Interactivity Using Pigeon Courtship,” by Emma Ware, Queen’s University, Canada