The Gonzo Scientist

Why Do Scientists Dance?

Science  05 Nov 2010:
Vol. 330, Issue 6005, pp. 752
DOI: 10.1126/science.330.6005.752-b

The 2010 "Dance Your Ph.D." contest just wrapped up. Rather than last year's dance-off between grad students, postdocs, and professors, this year's contest pitted scientific fields against one another, a dancing battle royal among physics, chemistry, biology, and the social sciences. (Chemistry conquered.)

Science has run the contest for 3 years now. Hundreds of scientists have taken part. Their online dance videos have been viewed 750,000 times so far and will likely top 1 million before next year's contest kicks off. What started off, admittedly, as an inebriated stunt at a Vienna science party has gone viral.

So why do scientists do it? Is a Ph.D. dance good for your career? Or does it haunt you for the rest of your life, like that embarrassing photograph that circulates forever on the Internet, popping up when people Google your name? To find out, I conducted an e-mail survey of all the scientists who have made Ph.D. dances. Their answers paint a complex picture, mostly positive, of the unexpected consequences of interpreting your Ph.D. research in dance form.

While taking stock of the Ph.D. dance phenomenon, I also did some historical research. Scientists have been interpreting their research with dance for much longer than you might think. To find the origin, you have to go all the way back to 1971 on the campus of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. In an era of free love and violent protests, about 100 people danced on the grass, enacting one of the greatest discoveries of the century: how the ribosome translates genes from DNA into proteins. I interviewed one of the scientists who sponsored the event, Nobel Prize–winner Paul Berg, as well as David Thomas, one of the Ph.D. students who took part. "Nobody who participated in that dance remembers anything about it, due to pharmacological events out of our control," says Thomas, now a biophysics professor at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. "It's a good thing they recorded it." See for yourself below.

What's Ahead

Courtesy U.C. San Diego

Hippie Origins

In the summer of 1971, three graduate students knocked on the door of Paul Berg, the new chair of the biochemistry department at Stanford University School of Medicine. He recognized them from his molecular biology course. "They were intrigued by my lectures on protein synthesis," says Berg, and they had a strange proposal. "They wanted to capture the essence of that process in dance." Some of their girlfriends were ballet dancers, the students explained, and they just needed some money to hire a film crew.

"At the time I thought they were crazy, or kidding me," says Berg, now 84 and a professor emeritus at Stanford. But they didn't need much money, he says, and "it seemed like it might be fun." More importantly, Berg hoped it would "soften the mood that had captured the campus."

For people of my generation—born long after 1971—it's hard to imagine just how different the mood was at U.S. universities. Students staged marches and sit-ins constantly, often with faculty in the lead. The threat of violence hung in the air. The previous year, four students had been shot dead by National Guardsmen on the campus of Kent State University in Ohio while protesting the U.S. bombing of Cambodia. On the Stanford campus in the spring of 1971, the spark was civil rights. A black custodian at the medical school had been fired after raising a stink about racial disparities in salaries. The medical school also denied tenure to a Latino faculty member. In response to these perceived injustices, 60 students and outside activists occupied the Stanford Medical Center. A day later, police stormed the building. The hospital suffered $100,000 in damages, and dozens of people were seriously injured.

"So the mood on campus was pretty grim," recalls Berg. "All of this was sort of roiling around when suddenly these three guys come to me and say, 'We have this idea to turn your science into dance.' . . . And I thought, Why not?"

Video: "Molecular Happening"

Dance and interview with Paul Berg. [For a high-definition version of this video, go to http://video.sciencemag.org/]

The result, shot in a single day with little rehearsal, is deeply trippy. It begins with a 3-minute introduction by Berg in front of a chalkboard. "Only rarely is there an opportunity to participate in a molecular happening," intones Berg without emotion. He runs through a play-by-play of protein synthesis. Then the dance begins. It involved so many dancers that the film crew had to put the camera on the roof of one of the tallest buildings on campus and shoot from above.

The dance begins with a pile of 20 students in blue hospital gowns—representing the 30S subunit of the ribosome—oozing across the grass. Then a hand-linked line of about 50 people with colored balloons attached to their heads—representing the strand of mRNA—snakes into the action. An even larger crowd in blue—the 50S subunit—then somersaults into place. Colorfully dressed women (the amino acids) kidnapped by merry gangs (the tRNAs) come bounding in. The two crowds of subunits writhe and bow in unison as the mRNA crowd slides between them.

Adding to the surrealism, there's a live band jamming, with a singer belting out lyrics like "Ohhhh hydrogen bond! Woo hoo!" Meanwhile, a woman softly recites a modified version of Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky that explains the molecular mechanisms being danced.

Besides giving the intro lecture, Berg says his only contribution to the choreography was the concept of energy. "Every peptide bond requires consuming energy, and the movement of the mRNA relative to the ribosome requires energy," he says. "I came up with the idea of using a fire extinguisher." The energy-providing molecule GTP is represented by a sinister-looking young man in a red cloak and goggles. "You'll see that the guy goes into the middle of the ribosome, and suddenly up comes a puff of smoke," says Berg.

Amazingly, I found that guy: David Thomas.

Did you take part in the 1971 Protein Synthesis dance? If so, Professor Paul Berg would like to hear from you. Share your recollections by sending an e-mail (gonzo{at}aaas.org).

"It was a unique event," Thomas recalls. "My Ph.D. work was on molecular dynamics, so I really appreciated the simulation of random thermal motion that we were encouraged to create." The experience was clearly positive for him. "It was really about the science, the joy of discovery," he says. "It really made a difference to a first-year grad student, believe me."

Over the years, Berg says he has had "tens of thousands" of requests for the film. "I think that it helped people see that what they were learning, which seemed very complicated, … it made it fun." At first he just mailed out the 16-mm film. Then he sent it out on VHS tape. Then DVD. Finally, his burden was lifted in 2006 by putting it on YouTube (over 650,000 views and counting). Like most people of my generation, that's where I encountered it.

Not yet trippy enough for you? "By the way," Thomas wrote in an e-mail. "Jawed Karim, co-founder of YouTube, was my student at U. Minnesota in the late 1990s." Whoa.

The Consequences of Ph.D. Dancing

Forty years after the Protein Synthesis dance at Stanford, the age of online video is here. Scientists who want to dance their Ph.D. don't need to hire a film crew. Nor do they need a Nobel Prize winner to distribute it to the people. Anyone with an inexpensive camera and an Internet connection can instantly share the trip. Then again, putting things out on the Internet can have unexpected consequences.

I sent an e-mail to every scientist who has taken part in the "Dance Your Ph.D." contest. I asked them to describe how online geek fame has affected their lives—for better or worse. I also asked what, if anything, a Ph.D. dance is good for.

The main use seems to be education and outreach. "I'm a big advocate of using science stunts in teaching," says Richard Losick, a molecular biologist at Harvard University and one of the judges of this year's contest. (The full list of judges and their scoring system are here.) Losick is using this year's winning Ph.D. dance—a Scottish folk dance version of directed DNA aptamer evolution—as a teaching tool in his classes. "What I love about it is that it gets the science right," he says, "and at the same time, it's fun to watch."

Some scientists have found other uses for dance. One of the most impressive applications comes from David Odde, a biophysicist and colleague of David Thomas's at the University of Minnesota. He quickly threw together this dance with his students at a live Ph.D. dance event on campus this year. Although that was just for fun, Odde is now collaborating with the choreographer Carl Flink to turn cell biology into serious dance. "Most of what we know about cellular processes comes from looking through microscopes," says Odde, but this view "masks the truly violent nature of the random motions of molecules." To get a more intuitive handle on his own research, Odde is using human dancers to explore how the cell's skeleton of microtubules spontaneously assembles and falls apart. "I'm finding that using dance allows me to compare mechanisms faster than I can simulate them on the computer," he says. And as a bonus, it is generating art. Flink plans to stage a public performance later this year.

And here is a representative sample of what Ph.D. dancing has done for other scientists:

 

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Watch it on YouTube.

"I've already informed my grad students that they will be required to do this as a condition of their doctorate. My new grad student apparently watched as a way of vetting me as a potential advisor. (I apparently passed.) My family has watched it but they still don't know what I do."

—Adam Burgasser

 

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Watch it on Vimeo.

"I was awarded a scholarship some time after the '09 competition. When they wrote me to inform me that I was given the scholarship, they ended with 'ps: I liked your lobster dance.' I had never mentioned to them anything about the contest or my entry, but they must have dug it up. I have a sneaking suspicion that it may have helped my chances. It might have given them an understanding of my research different from what a paper application alone could have provided."

—Christin Murphy

 

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Watch it on Vimeo.

"The ultimate point of my research was expressed more clearly in two and half minutes of dance than hundreds of pages of text."

—Keith Massey

 

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"I had two interesting things happen as a direct result of my dance. First, I went to the scientific recruiter at my postdoc to talk about getting a new job and asked him whether he thought I should take down my dance to increase my chances of getting a job. He thought it would not hurt to keep it up. In the end, I think it he was right. My current boss has a habit of googling people before they are hired, and I learned that he not only saw my dance but was also more enthusiastic about hiring me after learning of this crazy endeavor. Second, I posted my video with all the required information, including current position. About 5 months after the contest ended (~March), I got a random email at my work account, and I almost trashed it as spam until I looked at the name, which was the same as someone who I had gone to nerd camp with in junior high and hadn't seen since 1998. He had heard about the contest from some friends, and finally had [gotten] around to investigating it. He saw my name (and dance) and then figured out that we lived in the same city! So I started hanging out with him and then ended up dating him..."

—Wendy Grus

 

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"My PhD dance may have helped me get a job. I submitted my dance in the last year of my PhD, shortly before I started searching for a postdoc position. The video was one of the top hits for my name on google, so when I interviewed for my current job, my coworkers-to-be had all googled my name and seen the video. It may or may not have influenced their opinion of me as a scientist, but it definitely gave us a starting point for getting to know each other. And if any of my potential employers saw my PhD dance and thought worse of me because of it, then the video may have saved me from joining a lab full of boring fun-haters."

—Bonnie Barrilleaux

 

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Watch it on Vimeo.

"Doing this project, for me anyway, was actually more of a way to clarify my thoughts on my project and determine what were the key pieces of information that formed the story I was interested in. I think it's really easy to get lost in literature reviews and statistical analysis as a PhD student and lose focus on what you are actually studying and why it is important. Trying to tell a story with movement was a way to reexamine my work, kind of like writing an abstract or an elevator speech. I am a PhD student in sustainability, which is a field that really believes there is a need for more trans-disciplinary work (in this case perhaps science and art) as well as a need for scientists to engage and connect with people outside their field, especially general audiences and decision-makers. I think the contest can be used as a way to do this, and I think it's exciting because it has engaged people in multiple areas of science."

—Genevieve Metson

 

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"My dance has become probably the most cited 'work' with hits on YouTube which is quite funny. Also somehow people find it and when I am invited to give lectures for student retreats etc. or if I join an advisory board the video is somehow always 'found' and shown to general amusement. I of course should mention that I participated at the first competition and came in third - among three [participants] - before the contest took off. So, yes, it had quite an impact on me - in a nice way."

—Josef Penninger

 

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"When we finished the video and sent the email link out to everyone most of my colleagues were at the European Society of Cardiology meeting - and so we became even more notorious! The video tells a story that is very important: the use of new technology to diagnose heart disease. It makes this important research accessible to more than just cardiologists and radiologists - it can be understood by family, friends, non-scientists, patients, school pupils ... I have friends who are going to use it in their high school classroom (great for physics teachers). It also helps to explain a bit about the patient's journey when they need to have a CT scan and I hope that will help people who need to undergo these tests."

—Michelle Williams

 

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"Since undergraduate I've had a secret plan to get a position as a professor in a Environmental Science department and then infiltrate the Dance Department. Since being named runner-up in the 2008 competition, doors have been thrown open with no infiltration needed. For instance, I was considering a position at a University and they arranged for me to meet with the Director of the Dance Department. I was just hoping to be able to take classes and maybe choreograph a dance with their students, but the Director was eager to find ways to collaborate with my research! Another dream come true was meeting and starting an email exchange with Liz Lerman, the superstar choreographer of the acclaimed science dances Ferocious Beauty: Genome and Matter of Origins. During a conference I had several conversations with her and her dancers, it was amazing to be talking shop as one science dance choreographer to another. My PhD dance has also led people to see my work from a new perspective. Even fellow scientists, who knew my work well, have asked questions about my work that they had never asked before, because the PhD dance gave them a new lens into my research. I've left my youtube video up and it has over 13,000 hits. I still continue to have people posting comments about the piece, including stakeholders in the case studies I have researched. It has become an excellent tool for stimulating discussion and offering a platform from which to share my work with a larger audience. I also love the statistics tools with youtube that have allowed me to track, where the people who are interested in my PhD dance live. Finally and by no means least importantly, the PhD dance competition has allowed me to come out of the closet and be fully accepted as a dancing scientist. I remember during my first year in graduate school, a fellow student scoffed at me when he learned I was a dancer and told me I couldn't be a serious scientist if I danced. This was a theme I would hear time and again from professors and other science colleagues. I learned to be cautious about [with] whom I shared my dancing. The PhD Dance competition helped legitimize my dancing in the eyes of the scientific community. My peers now proudly mention the competition when introducing me, they share articles they've read about the intersections of science and art, and they are forever curious about when I'm going to create my next science dance."

—Kiki Jenkens

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