Interpreting science for the general public is important, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Sometimes, no matter how many killer diagrams and visually stunning charts you have, or how refined and elegant your language, there is only one way to truly get your message across: interpretive dance!

The Dance Your PhD contest is the brainchild of John Bohannon, who writes the occasional “Gonzo Science” column in Science Magazine. The rules are simple: the participant must be (or at one time have been) a PhD candidate, and must appear in a video in which they use interpretive dance to explain their research. Beyond that, anything goes. Most videos include a number of collaborators, from lab mates to professional coreographers and special effects artists. This year, the fourth since the international contest started, saw a record 55 entries, which were then whittled down to a field of 16 semi-finalists. The field included two Canadians, one of whom won her category, and both of whom I had the pleasure of speaking with this week.

Erin McConnell is the defending champ. She was part of the team (led by her colleague, Maureen McKeague) from Carleton University that won last year’s grand prize for a video explaining the process of SELEX. That stands for Systematic Evolution of Ligands by EXponential enrichment (a mouthful to be sure) and is a chemistry technique which involves taking thousands of random, short strands of DNA and selecting one – an aptamer – that binds extremely well to a particular target molecule. (If you’re curious about why one would want to do this and/or want to see last year’s winning video, check out this profile of Dr. Maria De Rosa (McConnell and McKeague’s thesis supervisor) which I wrote for my day job.) Besides classical and hip-hop influences, the team included a fair bit of Scottish highland dancing, skills McConnell has been honing all year by taking extracurricular dance classes. “When I started taking the classes, some of the girls actually recognized me from that video,” she says. “They wanted to be a part of it, so about half the girls in this year’s video are from that dance class.”

DNA Aptamers as a Tool for Studying Mental Health Disease from Erin McConnell on Vimeo.

This year the team decided to depict the use of aptamers in the study of dopamine, a neurotransmitter thought to be involved in learning, memory, emotion and movement. McConnell’s research focuses on finding an aptamer that can bind to dopamine, preventing it from binding to receptors in the brain. This could be used as a therapeutic for people with abnormal dopamine production, or simply as a probe to study the neurological role of dopamine in animal models. That explains the rat costumes in this year’s video. “Last year there were a lot of boys in the video and we he had to curb our costumes a little, because they were less willing,” says McConnell. “This year we went all out.”

Despite making the final four in the chemistry category, McConnell’s video did not take home the grand prize. She takes it all in stride, explaining that the team had no expectations, and emphasizing the value of the contest. “It’s just such a fun way to portray your research. I’ve had people say ‘You know, you’ve told me about your research before, but watching this video is the first time I’ve really understood it.'”

In contrast to Erin McConnell’s large team of scientists and highland dancers, Emma Ware’s video is pared back: just her and her boyfriend in a lyrical duet. Not only has Ware been dancing since she was ten, her research – done at the BioMotion lab at Queen’s University – seems almost designed for the contest. Ware studies how pigeons use movement to communicate with each other. “Pigeons interact using what we call the circle-walking dance,” she says. “They circle, or do figure-eights, they bob their heads, they drag their tails, and they coo. This visual display is not only used in courtship, you see it between same-sex partners and rivalry interactions. We were testing whether the timing, spacing and dynamics of these interactions really matter.”

Dance your PhD 2011: A study of social interactivity using pigeon courtship from Emma Ware on Vimeo.

Ware and her colleagues put caged male pigeons in one of two situations; either with a real female partner they could see in the next cage over, or with a videotape of that same female. Females in the videotape would move like real ones, but they wouldn’t react like real ones. That means their movements were not impacted by why their male partners were doing, and it turns out this had an effect on how the males behaved.

To show this through dance, Ware and her boyfriend (the couple first met at a dance class) used circular movements and a pattern of modifying a single interaction based on each other’s responses. They wore classical masquerade masks, which turned out to be a perfect evocation of pigeon beaks. The performance was good enough to win first place in the social sciences category, carrying a cool $500. Ware doesn’t have any big plans for the money though. “I’ll probably just use it to pay my rent,” she says. “I’m saving up to go to med school, so I could use the money!”

To hear my complete interview with Emma Ware, click below.

Interview with Emma Ware (Dance your PhD)

To see all 55 videos from this year’s Dance your PhD contest, click here.

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