The recipe for a great scientific dance video is a lot like that for a delicious loaf of bread. It takes a lot of planning, some pulling and stretching, and a heaping of yeast. That was the formula for Povilas Šimonis, at least. The Lithuanian scientist’s colorful and clever interpretation of the electric stimulation of yeast—replete with people representing prancing cells and mouthwatering baked goods—is the winner of this year’s “Dance Your Ph. D.” contest.
Šimonis’s Ph.D. investigated how yeast, the single-celled fungus that powers bread baking and a host of other biological processes, behaves when pulsed with electricity. Electric shocks can help open yeast cells’ membranes, inactivate them, or make them more efficient. And although he spends much of his time in the lab prodding at cells, the biologist is surrounded by artists in his everyday life. “My parents are music teachers, my fiancée and brother are professional actors, and I spent many years performing in theater so many of my friends are artists,” Šimonis says.
He wanted to better explain his thesis, completed at Lithuania’s Center for Physical Sciences and Technology and Vilnius University, to his loved ones and to the wider world. So Šimonis recruited many of those friends to script, score, and choreograph his winning video. The slick result took months of planning and a whirlwind 2 days of shooting to create.
The Dance Your Ph.D. contest, which was created by former Science correspondent John Bohannon in 2008, invites scientists to interpret their theses through movement and commit the act to video. Bohannon still runs the contest and now works at Primer, an artificial intelligence company that sponsors the competition.
The contest is divided into four categories—biology, chemistry, physics, and social sciences—and is judged by a panel of esteemed dancers, scientists, and artists. Each category winner receives a prize of $750, and the overall winner receives an additional $2000. (Primer had offered another prize this year for machine learning–related dances but no one entered; Bohannon says the company will still consider dances tweeted at @primer_ai, Primer’s account.)
Šimonis won the biology category, in addition to the overall prize, on the strength of his video’s delightful storytelling and attention to detail, says judge Matt Kent from the dance company Pilobolus. “Great dance creates an atmosphere or a world,” he says. “And that’s exactly what the winner did.”
The four winners didn’t just use movement creatively or explain their research clearly, but intertwined the two, the judges say. “The science enhances the dance, and the dance enhances the science,” explains judge Emily Kent, also of Pilobolus. And of course, each winner was a blast to watch, the judges say.
That’s exactly why Šimonis wanted to enter the dance off. “Usually when you’re looking at scientific presentations you stop listening within a minute if you’re not hooked,” he says. “Our idea was to make everything attractive, but for people who become interested in the science, they are able to dig deeper.”
Now that his close friends have seen the video and understand his research in a new way, Šimonis feels like he’s finally completed his dissertation. “Now, at last, I’ve defended my Ph.D.”
Watch all the winners below.
Overall winner and biology category winner
Povilas Šimonis, “Investigation of yeast cell responses to pulsed electric field treatment”
Chemistry category winner
Mathilde Palmier, University of Bordeaux, “Understanding the aging bone biology: focus on osteocytes”
Physics category winner
Xiaohan Wu, Harvard University, “Probing cosmic reionization using the Lyman-alpha forest and the cosmic microwave background”
Social sciences category winner
Senka Žižanović, University of Zagreb, “Active learning as a didactic-methodical paradigm of contemporary teaching”
Judges of this year’s contest