Picture the scene. You’re presenting your doctoral thesis on “the role of the wss operon in the adaptive evolution of experimental populations of Pseudomonas fluorescens SBW25” and the examiners say, “Can you show us what it’s about?” You’ve only just started explaining when they shout “Show, don’t tell!” Luckily, you’re prepared. So you put on some foot-tapping music, call in your co-researchers, and you all go into your dance. With colour-coded costumes representing different bits of genetic code, you each have little actions that you pass among yourselves like bits of information – and that’s what makes your dance sequence evolve. It’s adaptive evolution in dance form! You graduate!
Well, it didn’t quite happen like that for John Bohannon – the timeline is out. It was 2002 when he presented his thesis on the wss operon, but not until 2008 that he finally got to dance it. In the interim, as a writer for Science magazine, Bohannon had already written some canny reviews of modern dance (on Cesc Gelabert performing with his brain, and Mark Baldwin dancing Einstein). Then, as the magazine’s intrepid “Gonzo Scientist”, he came up with the brilliant (and also mad) idea of the first Dance Your PhD contest for scientists.
Held in Vienna in January, it attracted 12 entries in three categories (student, postdoctoral and professorial), doubtless lured by the promised prize of “cult status for the rest of your life”. I found Bohannon’s own entry strong on composition (an all-too-rare quality among choreographers), but in the event the postdoc prize went to Nicole-Claudia Meisner’s more conceptual “coding” choreography – reminiscent of the early Judson Dance Theater – which used tap dance and flash cards to represent genes switching off and on. Giulio Superti-Furga, assisted by two students, was a deserved winner in the professorial category. His medley, illustrating “transcription factors in human growth control”, packed plenty of scenes into a short time, and ended on a real high with a swell of emotion and a lovely triple arabesque penchée motif (a homage, perhaps, to Balanchine’s Apollo).
By far the highest score, though, went to student category winner Brian Stewart, an anthropologist. Dressed only in a loincloth, he ritualistically pursued a graceful antelope (portrayed by Giulia Saltini-Semerari). This pure showmanship was bound to get the popular vote, but personally I’d have gone for Ruth Gruetzbach’s tango interpretation of a small galaxy (Gruetzbach) orbiting a big galaxy (Jesus Varela) until she is eventually subsumed by his supermassive gravity. Simple, stylish, and strangely poignant.
My nul points, though, go to Josef Penninger. Flapping to The Birdie Song is by no stretch of the imagination a creative interpretation of “an analysis of thymic nurse cells in the chicken”. Back to the laboratory!
Bohannon is already planning a 2009 competition. I don’t qualify (no PhD), but if I think back to my undergraduate dissertation – something about hermaphroditism and the population genetics of the musk mallow – I picture it asa silent, soulless version of Little Shop of Horrors. What will next year’s boffins come up with? Surely it will surprise and delight – and might well give some ideas to professional choreographers.