What kind of science makes the best dance? Last night at the Imagine Science Film Festival in New York City, a packed audience waited to find out. "And the winner is ... Chemistry!" As the crowd cheered, Maureen McKeague, a chemistry Ph.D. student at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, mounted the stage to take a bow and accept her award as champ of the "2010 Dance Your Ph.D." contest.
McKeague's dance, an interpretation of her research on designer molecules, beat out the best Ph.D. dances from physics, biology, and the social sciences. She goes home with a $1000 prize ($500 for being a finalist, $500 for winning) from Science, which sponsored the contest.
Just like her research, "this was a group effort that involved our whole lab," says McKeague. She was joined on stage by fellow Ph.D. student Elyse Bernard, who helped choreograph the complex dance involving every undergraduate and Ph.D. student working in Maria DeRosa's lab at Carleton--a dozen people in total. "Our adviser really encouraged us," says Bernard.
The lab is exploring a chemical technique called SELEX--systematic evolution of ligands by exponential enrichment--which generates short segments of DNA and RNA called aptamers. These nucleic acids can be designed to stick to almost any target molecule. For McKeague's Ph.D. research, the target molecule--played by undergraduate student and Scottish folk dancer Charlotte Bradley--is the amino acid homocysteine. High levels of this amino acid are an indicator of cardiovascular disease. McKeague's aim is to use SELEX to create aptamers to cheaply and accurately measure homocysteine in blood samples.
When DeRosa learned about the Ph.D. dance contest, says Bernard, "she told us that SELEX would make a really great dance." Our readers agree. In response to our online survey, 69% of the 3812 votes favored McKeague's as the winner.
The judges were also enamored. "I loved the dance," says Richard Losick, a molecular biologist at Harvard University. Losick was one of the 13 judges who chose winners from the 45 Ph.D. dances submitted to this year's contest. Other judges included the four winners of the "2009 Dance Your Ph.D." contest, four choreographers and dancers from the modern dance company Pilobolus, and four other scientists from Harvard. Besides the scientific accuracy of McKeague's Ph.D. dance, "it was enjoyable and humorous to watch," says Losick, adding that he will be using it in his introductory molecular biology course at Harvard.
The other finalists weren't too put out. "It was worth it!" says Steven Lade, the winner in the physics category who flew in from Dresden, Germany, where he is now a postdoc at the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems. The physicists will come back dancing for next year's contest with a vengeance, he says.