If soil-dwelling fungi could dance, this is what they’d look like

Dancers in brown leotards slither on the floor, reaching for the trapeze artists in green leggings dangling above them. The brown dancers are dangerous soil-dwelling fungi, trying to infect the green “seedlings” swinging around the tree. Then, a tornado whips the dancers around, scattering them.

It’s a scene from Uma Nagendra’s winning “Dance Your Ph.D.” performance. “Dance Your Ph.D.” is an international competition sponsored by the Science, AAAS and HighWire Press, challenging doctoral students to explain their research in dance. Now in its seventh year, the competition is judged by a panel of 12 scientists and artists.

Dancers/scientists can enter their research in four categories: biology, physics, chemistry and social sciences. As the winner of the biology category and the overall competition, Nagendra wins $1,000 and a trip to Stanford University in May for a screening of her video. The finalists in the other categories win $500 each.

Nagendra, a biology Ph.D. student from the University of Georgia, is also a trained trapeze artist. She watched her hometown of New Orleans struggle to recover from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, she began to wonder: How do plants recover after a disaster?

Since you never know when a hurricane is going to show up, Nagendra turned her attention to tornadoes, which pop up all over the country each spring. Cyclones can level towns in a matter of minutes, but they may help trees in the long run, she found.

Soil dwelling parasites spread out from the trees’ roots, attacking the seedlings closest to the tree. Tornadoes rip through the soil, killing roots and disrupting the soil parasites. That gives the seedlings a greater chance of surviving, Nagendra found.

The other finalists include a dance on how light triggers nuclear fusion (physics category):

“In The Ring: A Fusion Odyssey” from Mariah Steele

The finalist in chemistry explains how emulsions fight gravity to make reduced-fat mayonnaise:

“Reduced-fat mayonnaise: Can´t maintain it´s stability” from Saio Nara.

From the social sciences, a researcher from Complutense University of Madrid dances the Spanish conquest of the Caroline Islands:

The “Discovery” of the Pacific: International Relationships within the Spanish Oceanic continent. from David Manzano.

And the online vote winner, the dance of the drones:

“Multiple Robots — Dancing Tango” from Venanzio Cichella.