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Dancing with the Ph.D's: Scientists explain their work through interpretive moves

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What do a doctorate in plant biology, interpretive dance and a trapeze have in common? Well, for University of Georgia, Athens, Ph.D. Uma Nagendra, they can win you first prize in an annual "Dance Your Ph.D." contest.

The contest, sponsored by the journal Science, its publisher the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and HighWire Press, challenges doctoral candidates around the world to express the subject of their Ph.D. research in interpretive dance, to be judged by a panel of artists and scientists.

The competition has four categories: Biology, Physics, Chemistry and Social Science, and there is also an overall winner announced -- in this case, Nagendra.

An acrobat in addition to being a scientist, she created a trapeze-based aerialist dance based on her study of how tornadoes can overturn forest soil, which in turn provides tree seedlings with conditions that allow them to evade parasitic fungi, which would otherwise kill them.

In her choreographed routine that won both the Biology category and the overall prize, dancers on trapezes took the part of a tree, its seedlings, and the pathogenic fungus in the roots of the tree.

She doesn't see anything odd in a biology researcher also being an expert on a trapeze.

"It turns out there are lots of scientists doing it," she says.

In addition to a $1,000 prize, Nagendra has earned a free trip to Stanford University where her dance video will be screened.

Winners in the other categories included a song and dance to illustrate the stability (or lack thereof) of low-fat mayonnaise in Chemistry, by Saioa Alvarez from the University of the Basque Country in Spain; a group dance showing research in nuclear fusion in Physics, created by Hans Rinderknecht of MIT; and for Social Science a dance dramatizing the history of colonialism and technology in the Pacific by David Manzano Cosano of the Complutense University of Madrid.

There was also a People's Choice winner, voted on by online viewers of videos of the entries; that prize went to a tango demonstrating how aerial robots can synchronize their movements to avoid crashing into each other or into objects in their environments.

"An autonomous flying robot who can safely navigate a crowded dynamic environment, and coordinate with its teammates, can definitely tango!" says dance creator Venanzio Cichella of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The individual category winners were selected from 12 finalists, including dancing representations of exploding carbon nanofibers and the genetic bases of a heart attack.

Videos of the 12 finalists can be viewed on the AAAS Science website.

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