The dreaded question. "So, what's your Ph.D. research about?" You could bore them with an explanation. Or you could dance.
That's the idea behind "Dance Your Ph.D." Over the past 3 years, scientists from around the world have teamed up to create dance videos based on their graduate research. This year's contest, launched in June by Science, received 45 brave submissions .
Today, judges—including scientists, choreographers, and past winners—announced the finalists in four categories: physics, chemistry, biology, and social sciences. Each receives $500.
The judges will announce the winner next month at the Imagine Science Film Festival in New York City. But you can vote for your favorite now. We'll reveal the victor—and our reader pick—on 19 October.
Selection of a DNA aptamer for homocysteine using systematic evolution of ligands by exponential enrichment
McKeague's Ph.D. dance , based on her research at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, is about a technique called Systematic Evolution of Ligands by Exponential Enrichment (SELEX). The target is a small molecule called homocysteine. SELEX uses natural selection to find the small strands of DNA called aptamers (the other dancers) that bind specifically to the target. Watch for the hilarious Taq Polymerase scene in the middle of the dance.
Directed transport without net bias in physics and biology
Steven Lade, a Ph.D. student at the Australian National University in Canberra, does the dance  of myosin-V, a molecular motor that moves vesicles around inside cells by migrating along actin fibers. In the dance, Lade is myosin-V, buffeted by other proteins in the cell. He doesn't know where he's going, but his built-in bias to walk forward eventually gets the vesicle to its destination at the end of the actin filament.
The influence of previous experiences on visual awareness
The key to understanding de Jong's dance  is the distracted guy on the couch. All of this is happening in his head: a video clip on a laptop, a signal going through his eyes, and ultimately information being processed in his brain. How all this adds up to visual awareness is the subject of her Ph.D. research at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.
The negotiation of contributions to public wikis
Goldenberg's Ph.D. research—at Université du Québec à Montréal and Université Nice Sophia Antipolis—focuses on how people interact with one another through wiki sites. If you've ever witnessed a "flame war," you'll appreciate the violent petulance about halfway through the dance .
Pick your favorite winner
Voting is over, but check ScienceNOW  for the Winner and Reader Favorite on October 19, 2010.
Generation and detection of high-energy phonons by superconducting junctions
Singer's Ph.D., completed at Indiana University in Bloomington, was a study of "phonons," vibrating atoms in a crystal lattice that cause superconductivity. In the dance , keep an eye out for the scenes during which the video becomes grainy and weird. That's when the phonon is transported from the generator to the detector.
Genetic Diversity of Bacillus anthracis in North America
Kenefic's dance  tells the story of his Ph.D. research at Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff: the colonization of the New World by the anthrax bacterium at the end of the last ice age. He plays the bison (with horns), and the kids are anthrax spores.
Mechanism of Integration of NBU1, a Bacteroides mobilizable transposon
The microbiology of the bowels has never been danced  so beautifully. Rajeev's Ph.D.—completed at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign—is about how special pieces of DNA called a transposon (represented here by handkerchiefs) moves around between bacteria in the intestine. Don't miss the second half of the dance during which the transposon DNA integrates itself into the chromosome.
The role of Urban Agriculture in promoting adaptive capacity of urban food systems to global phosphorus scarcity: Case studies of Phoenix, AZ and Accra, Ghana
Metson's dance —based on her Ph.D. at Arizona State University, Tempe—is all about phosphorus and agriculture. She wears a "P" to help you keep track of the movements of this nutrient. See if you can figure out how agricultural practices in Phoenix and Accra affect environmental phosphorus differently.