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12.04.08

Dance Your Way to a Ph.D.

You can't fully understand how hemoglobin molecules interact until you've seen them depicted through a classical pas de deux.

Ever asked an academic about their research only to be subjected to 20 minutes of nonsensical droning? Thanks to YouTube, it just got a whole lot easier to explain a complicated thesis at a cocktail party. In early October, Ph.D. students worldwide were challenged by Gonzo Labs/AAAS to re-create their dissertations through interpretive dance and post the videos on YouTube. Dozens of performances were submitted, ranging from tangos to Lindy Hops to night-vision hula-hooping. The choreography was scored on its ability to bridge the gap between art and science, though you should feel free to judge based on levels of jubilation and pure absurdity.

I have to admit, when a friend sent me these links, I expected pratfalls at best. But I was delightfully surprised—they’re so wonderfully random, earnest, and ecstatic, I felt engaged in science for the first time, well, ever. If only I could have danced my way through some of my science fair projects in grade school! Perhaps you’ll be inspired to choreograph an interpretative dance of your own occupation—if these videos prove anything, it’s that no job is too dry to inspire a cha-cha.

1) The Role of Vitamin D in Beta-Cell Function

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The winner of the Graduate Student category, this video from the University of Sydney, Australia, is a faux-ballet in three parts. It includes a touch of classical ballet wrapped around some energetic, git-down party dancing. Songs like Buster Poindexter’s Hot, Hot, Hot, the Nutcracker classic The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies, and Katrina and the Waves’ Walking on Sunshine harmonize bubble blowing (representing glucose, duh), faux ballet, and something resembling the Macarena. "I loved the idea of the contest from the moment I saw it," says Sue Lynn, creator of this video. "Growing up, I always wished that life could be more like a musical, that I could walk down the street doing the shopping and suddenly everyone would break out into a spontaneous yet choreographed routine."

2) A Molecular Dance of the Blood: Human Hemoglobin

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Ah, silly Americans! Winner of best Professor Dance, a teacher and his students, dressed in red, gyrate slowly in a circular pas de deux, representing the interaction of pairs of hemoglobin molecules, while an older guy dumps confetti on them. After reading up on the dance, I discovered that the confetti was supposed to be frost, depicting the process by which the professor cooled the molecules before studying them. To me, this dance falls somewhere between a prayer, a baseball game, and a round of Kumbaya. With more than 30,000 views, clearly many others have enjoyed the randomness of it as much as I have.

3) Hydrodynamic Trail Detection in Marine Organisms

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Did Cirque du Soleil enter this contest? This Ph.D. went all out on the costumes, and this one definitely gets my blue ribbon for most imaginative interpretation. You gotta love anyone who dresses up as the Lion King and performs night-vision hula-hooping, aerial acrobatic stunts, and fire juggling, and fits in Dead or Alive’s You Spin Me Round.

4) Sea Turtle Conservation Dance

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These runners-up chose a more modern style, rather than the crowd-pleasing Vitamin D crew. Rolling around the floor, arching their backs over makeshift trapezes, spinning, contorting their arms, looking tortured and anguished—this video almost made me want to go out and help save sea turtles with my bare hands. Almost.

5) Uneasy Alchemy

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This should have been a Beatles music video. The dance features an adorable Bette Midler-esque professor directing traffic, doing the robot, and twirling around the room with a parasol, surrounded by what looks more like a gymnastics team than a group of Ph.D.s. They even manage to create some semblance of a coordinated group dance at the end, but they probably shouldn’t give up their day jobs just yet.

Randi Zuckerberg works in marketing at Facebook, where she leads the company’s election strategy and has pioneered several large media partnerships. Included in The Hollywood Reporter’s 2008 Digital Power List, she is also a founder of The Dot Comix, an online video troupe that creates satirical videos about technology and geek culture.