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Shake your groove thing: PhD candidates explain their theses through dance

Suzanne E. Winter

Graduate students participating in the 2010 "Dance Your PhD" contest have choreographed their theses to make cutting-edge research more accessible to the masses.

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When asked if she could explain her thesis in words, Maureen McKeague laughs. “For sure, although I’m so used to explaining it in dance now.” The choreographed dance based on McKeague’s chemistry thesis has taken first place in the chemistry section of this year’s “Dance Your PhD” contest.

Maureen McKeague and her labmates choreographed the dance, produced the video, and submited it online to the 2010 "Dance Your PhD" contest. Source: Maureen McKeague

The premise of the contest, sponsored by the blog Gonzolabs and the journal Science, is simple: breathe life into your chemistry, biology, physics, or social science PhD thesis through creative choreography that explains the techniques through body movement.

In less than a month, McKeague and her labmates in Maria DeRosa’s lab at Carleton University in Ottowa had to choreograph the dance, produce the video, and submit it online before the 1st Sept. deadline. “It all came together really quickly in the first two weeks of August,” McKeague reflects. “Since it was a team effort, a lot of people took on different roles.”

The DeRosa lab focuses on aptamer development and modification, and the group chose to dance McKeague’s thesis because it was a fairly straightforward protocol. Her thesis, titled “Selection for a DNA aptamer for homocystine using SELEX,” chronicles the use of the systematic evolution of ligands by exponential enrichment (SELEX) technique to develop an aptamer—a small DNA molecule with an affinity for a specific molecule—for the small molecule, homocystine. SELEX mimics evolution in nature by finding aptamers that bind selectively to the target in increasingly stringent trials that end with the survival of the fittest aptamer for the target molecule.

McKeague’s thesis dance begins with a lonely homocystine target, dancing by herself to Celine Dion’s “Alone” before being incubated with DNA strands that are possible aptamers. The dancers demonstrate binding affinity by keeping apace of the aerobic homocystine as she dances to Vanilla Fudge’s “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” and surviving a urea wash as “Night on Bald Mountain” plays menacingly in the background. In the true gem of the video, the strands then undergo PCR, led by a jiving Taq DNA polymerase molecule to the tune of Men Without Hat’s “Safety Dance.” Finally, natural selection takes its toll as mismatched aptamers peel off the dance group to Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” and the remaining aptamers celebrate their binding affinity with Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.”

In addition to the fun involved with making the film, McKeague has been able to use the video to explain her thesis more easily to friends and family. “Really, only my parents kind of knew what I was doing before, but now all my friends and extended family have had the chance to watch the video and get a little bit of an idea about what I do,” said McKeague.

McKeague’s winning entry is also being shown in classrooms across the country for education purposes. Her supervisor, DeRosa, has already used the video in some the classes that she teaches at Carleton to introduce basic laboratory methods. “A Harvard professor said he loved our video and wants to use it in his molecular biology classes,” said McKeague.

After beating out forty-five submissions, the winners from the four categories are now finalists in competition for the “Best PhD Dance of All.” Voting has begun at Science, and the ultimate winner will be announced on 19th Oct. at the Imagine Science Film Festival in New York City.

Last year, BioTechniques reported on last year’s “Dance Your PhD” contest winners, as well as the 2009 Imagine Science Film Festival.