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Scientists Turn Ph.D. Research Into Dance

Update: October 21, 4:30 pm ET|

The 2011 Dance Your PhD awards have been announced. The grand prize goes to Joel Miller, a biomedical engineer at the University of Western Australia in Perth. Winners can be found here.

In 2008, a guy on a stage in a loin cloth pretended to kill a woman dressed as an antelope to the music of Herbie Hancock’s Watermelon Man.

Archeologist Brian Stewart, now a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Cambridge, was acting out his Ph.D thesis, which explored how early humans in South Africa cooked, shared and disposed of food.

It was the beginning of what would become something of a cult competition among young scientists: the “Dance Your Ph.D.” contest, sponsored by Science/AAAS, which is poised to announce its fourth set of winners at 2 p.m. ET on Thursday. This year, 55 Ph.D. theses with names like “Carbon Nanotube Growth on Challenging Substrates” or “Cosmological Simulations of Galactic Disc Assembly” were turned into experimental dance by their authors, videotaped and then judged.

Among this year’s dances:

Pinon trees threatened by drought in the Southwest are represented by leotard-clad, burlesque-style dancers flapping feathers and then seizing comically into death:

Scientists flit artfully back and forth across a field, tiny costume wings vibrating, simulating fruit fly courtship rituals and fruit fly sex:

This Australian scientist turns his research on titanium designed for customized orthopedic implants into a love story, in stop-motion animation:

And there’s this dance to nanotube chemistry, titled “The Zirconia Monster, A True Story.” Don’t miss the section on nanotube growth.

Molecular biologist-turned-science journalist John Bohannon conceived of the idea while planning a big party with a bunch of scientists at a biomedical institute in Vienna four years ago.

“This place was full of agonizing Ph.D. students,” Bohannon said. “The Ph.D. – it’s like this taboo topic. A lot of grad students are so stressed out, so despondent about their Ph.D. that you can’t even bring it up comfortably.”

Bohannon’s solution: they’d have to dance their research instead. Stewart, whose loin cloth dance scored the grand prize, recalls his first conversation with Bohannon about the idea.

“At first, it just sounded completely ridiculous, totally surreal and absurd,” Stewart said. But the more he thought about it, the more it began to make sense. “Scientists don’t get a chance to express themselves in many other media other than journals and books.”

Stewart’s girlfriend, also an archeologist, played the ungulate. They practiced several times in the kitchen. Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters struck them as the perfect musical choice. And the loin cloth?

“The loin cloth I wore I bought at some cheap Indian store,” he said. “I had to diaper fasten it to my midriff in the bathroom seconds before. It was pretty tenuous.” Here’s the video:

Bohannon wrote it up in Science Magazine, and put the subject to bed. End of story.

But it wasn’t. Over the next few months, he started getting emails from scientists all over the world — in India, in Australia — asking when the next dance contest was being held. And so it began to grow. Friday’s announcement will mark the fourth group of winner’s since the contest’s inception.

“We have now had dances by scientists that juggled flaming hula hoops,” Bohannon said. “We’ve had full-on ballets. And we’ve had breakdancing, really good breakdancing.”

This year, they received 55 dance videos by the contest deadline. Those were pared down to 16 finalists, chosen by previous winners. And the finalists are judged by a team of scientists and dance experts .

Judges look for scientific content, creativity, and how well the dance combines science and art. “It has to be good science and you have to boil it down to its essence in a way that anyone can understand,” Bohannon said.

For inspiration, potential applicants are pointed to some not-so-sciency videos: the OK Go treadmill dance, the Numa Numa guy and the Thriller prison video. High bar! And a challenge for any creative, goofy scientist with a camera and an urge to groove.

Here is a full list of the 16 finalists. Winners will be announced on Thursday.

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