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Dance Your Ph.D.: And The Winner Is...

15 October 2012 12:00 pm
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Peter Liddicoat, a materials scientist at the University of Sydney in Australia, admits to being a shy researcher, "more comfortable hiding behind the computer monitor." So when his labmates urged him to take part in the "Dance Your Ph.D." contest, he was reluctant. But he finally caved in to the pressure. "A turning point was my boss’s enthusiastic laughter when encouraging me to do it," Liddicoat says, "and the realization that this would tackle head-on the ominous question, 'So what is your Ph.D. about?' "

That encouragement paid off. Liddicoat is the winner, announced today, of the chemistry prize and the grand prize of the 2012 Dance Your Ph.D. contest. He will receive $1000 and a trip to Belgium where his dance will be screened at TEDxBrussels.

Explaining a scientific Ph.D. thesis to nonscientists is never easy, even with words. Liddicoat's is titled "Evolution of nanostructural architecture in 7000 series aluminium alloys during strengthening by age-hardening and severe plastic deformation." But after 6 months of preparation, and the help of dozens of friends, he turned his Ph.D. into a burlesque artwork. The performance employs juggling, clowning, and a big dance number—representing the crystal lattices that he studies with atomic microscopy.

This is the 5th year of the Dance Your Ph.D. contest sponsored by Science and AAAS. The competition challenges scientists around the world to explain their research through the most jargon-free medium available: interpretive dance. The 36 Ph.D. dances submitted this year include techniques such as ballet, break dancing, and flaming hula hoops. Those were whittled down to 12 finalists by the past winners of the contest. Those finalists were then scored by a panel of judges that included scientists, educators, and dancers.

This year's contest sees the first category win for a Ph.D. dance based on pure mathematics. Diana Davis is in the midst of a Ph.D. in geometry and dynamical systems at Brown University. She studies geodesic flow on regular polygons. "It's actually very related to billiards," Davis says, "like what happens if you roll a ball on a pool table and it bounces around, assuming that there is no friction and it goes forever." The math for describing that system has applications in cosmology where, for example, one hypothetical shape of the universe is a twisted three-dimensional torus—in which a spaceship traveling in one direction will eventually return to the same spot, but upside down. For translating her mathematical theorem into dance, Davis has won $500 and top honors in the physics category.

Europe also had a strong showing this year. Riccardo Da Re, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Padua in Italy, won the social science category and $500 for a dance based on his Ph.D. work on social networks in rural economies. And Maria Vinti, a physiology Ph.D. student at the Laboratoire de Biomécanique, Arts et Métiers, Paris Institute of Technology, scooped the $500 biology prize for dressing up her performers in full-body unitards and elastic straps to explain her Ph.D. thesis, "Spastic co-contraction in spastic paresis: Biomechanical and physiological characterization."

Our readers picked their own favorite dance this year—and surprisingly it wasn’t one of the winners chosen by the judges. The winner of the Popular Choice award is Rianne 't Hoen, for the dance based on her Ph.D. thesis, "Deuterium retention in tungsten."

Winners by Category

  • Deuterium retention in tungsten
    Reader Favorite
    Physics

    The sun creates a lot of energy by hydrogen fusion. Scientists are investigating fusion, building our own "sun on earth," as a sustainable energy source on earth. Read more

    Rianne 't Hoen
  • Cutting sequences on veech surfaces
    Physics

    In the first minute of this video, the dancer (Libby) shows how two pentagons are glued together to make a surface. This is the key idea of the video—the explaining of science, wordlessly, through dance.  Read more

    Diana Davis
  • Spastic cocontraction in spastic paresis: biomechanical and physiological characterization
    Biology

    We imagined the situation of the people with stroke, who cannot move their limbs properly because of overactivity in antagonistic muscles (spastic cocontraction) whenever they try to command their agonists. Read more

    Maria Vinti
  • Governance of natural resources and development of local economies in rural areas: the Social Network Analysis and other instruments for good governance indicators
    Social Science

    My Ph.D. research tries to develop a methodology for the evaluation of good local governance of natural resources in rural areas, and in particular it focuses mainly on three aspects. Read more

    Riccardo Da Re

The judges for this year’s contest:

Nicholas Christakis, sociologist, Harvard University

Jean Berko Gleason, psychologist, Boston University

Albion Lawrence, string theorist, Brandeis University

Jonathan Garlic, molecular biologist, Tufts University

Erez Lieberman Aiden, mathematician, Harvard University

Paul Ginsparg, physicist, Cornell University

Keith Nelson, chemist, MIT

Suzanne Walsh, program officer, Gates Foundation

Matt Kent, associate artistic director, Pilobolus

Emily Kent, coordinator, Pilobolus Institute

Renee Jaworski, associate artistic director, Pilobolus