These Scientists Are Dancing Their Research

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Dance can communicate complex and abstract topics.Pixabay

February was a good month for Pramodh Senarath Yapa. He had a paper published in the journal Physical Review Applied and his work was even featured in Science. But Science didn’t highlight his latest article – it was a video of him dancing a research project he completed at the University of Victoria in Canada.

Yapa is the winner of the most recent Dance Your PhD contest, and his video has been viewed more than seventy thousand times. All these viewers watched Yapa shuffle and twirl across a dancefloor with several others to explain how the formation of electron pairs regulates superconductivity in metals.

The Dance Your PhD contest is the brainchild of John Bohannon, former contributing correspondent at Science magazine. In 2008, he hosted the first competition as a live event. He included some videos from the event in the summary he wrote about it for Science, and readers wanted more. Bohannon says, “I just started getting emails from scientists all over the world, saying ‘when’s the next contest?’” It quickly became an annual event, but now held via video submissions so that any scientist in the world could participate.

Since that first competition, academics have submitted about five hundred videos of them interpreting their work as a dance in creative ways.

Contest rules state that the main submitter of the dance must be the person whose research is being performed, and they have to be involved as a dancer. Other than that, they are free to involve their friends.

Yapa had a whole network of swing dancing friends ready to help him out with his winning submission. “I’d been dancing in Victoria for about two or three years at this point,” he said, “so it was just about calling everyone up and [asking] ‘Hey, want to take part in this crazy idea I have?’”

Yapa’s friends perfectly embodied the concept of electron Cooper Pairs and spin impurities in superconducting wires, winning over a panel of judges with backgrounds in science or art.

Because it’s difficult to compare dances about subatomic particles with dances about biology, the dancers/scientists compete in four different categories: Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and Social Science.

This year’s winner of the Social Science category was Roni Zohar of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. Zohar not only danced her research, but her research is about dance.

“I really believe that you can learn by movement,” says Zohar. Her dance describes her work in which she developed an approach to teach complicated physics concepts though physical movements. One of the examples in her video is angular velocity, showing a group of young dancers walk around a bottle in a straight line: the students in the center take tiny steps, while the ones on the outer edge have to run to keep up. “You can understand it by the movement,” explains Zohar, “It’s not only for fun. You really understand the abstract [concept]. You can feel it.”

For the participants in the Dance Your PhD contest, who already know their subject matter, dancing their research isn’t so much about learning, but about teaching. “It’s a way to explain your work, and not go into details” says Zohar, who hopes her dance video will reach educators who might not be able to access or grasp her academic articles.

A big part of scientific research is communication, and being able to think about and communicate their own research in different ways is a very useful skill for scientists. Dance helps to hone that message.

Bohannon notes that the typical Dance Your PhD participant is already very interested in science communication, but participating in the competition takes it to the next level. “It not only changes the way they talk about their work, but it really changes their entire life and career.” This is particularly true for the winners, who get an audience for their work that they normally wouldn’t have reached. “When you Google your name, for the rest of your life, this is going to be on the front page of Google results.”

This year’s winner is enjoying the spotlight, and loves sharing what he’s working on. Yapa is now a PhD student at the University of Edmonton, where he studies the physical properties of the transition of Helium-3 into a superfluid at a temperature of just above absolute zero. He joined the swing dancing community in his new city as well, and he is already thinking about his next submission to the Dance Your PhD contest. “I’m going to try and make something different,” he says, “I have a few ideas.”

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