November 28, 2013
Chicken Sperm: The Award-Winning Interpretive Dance
Yes. You read that headline correctly. Every word of it. If you’re like me, you’re waiting for the kick, looking for the clever wordplay that turns the title on its head. “He can’t be literal,” you think to yourself. “There must be some kind of catch. Surely it’s like the claims of a six foot tall, man-eating chicken.”
For the past six years, Science magazine and the publisher of ScienceNOW have sponsored an event called “Dance your Ph.D.” that challenges academics worldwide to transform the subjects of their doctor theses into — you guessed it — interpretive dance. Whichever team most aptly (and humorously) bridges the gap between definitive discourse and fabulous footwork wins a thousand dollars and a trip to Stanford University to screen the video, courtesy of sponsor HighWire Press. The project has garnered all sorts of unexpected mash-ups, from metal fatigue to sleep deprivation, and cancer cell biology to paired protiens. The winners, Cedrick Tan and his team of chicken sperm aficionados, spent an entire year working on the winning entry, all the while continuing their research (the title of which is officially “Sperm competition between brothers and female choice”).
Honestly, as odd as such a competition may seem, it’s refreshing to see this kind of levity and self-aware humor amidst a discipline so notorious for mind-melting tedium and soul-crushing difficulty. It’s nice to see things from a new light — people and projects alike — and Dance your Ph.D. guarantees that to the nth degree. Sure, not all Ph.D. scholars are stone-faced professors who have nothing better to do than scribble notes on scattered sheets of legal pad and glare at newcomers, but there are certainly stigma attached to the higher education programs. Dance your Ph.D. allows the average layperson to observe an effect that might otherwise simply put them to sleep.
If you think about it, it’s brilliant. The whole idea behind interpretive dance is demonstrating the effect or effects in your paper through motion and, occasionally, sounds. While it would probably be insulting to say that this kind of paradigm shift suddenly makes such projects “approachable” to those not within their field, it’s certainly more likely that the viewers will come away with some understanding rather than none. The very nature of the contest demands that the concepts you’re addressing be conveyed without words, creating a necessary breakdown and reconstruction based on simple, core concepts. While I might not completely understand the role of MYCN in Neuroblastoma Tumors, I can grasp the basic symbology associated with the devil horns or notice changes in dance patterns when the “bad” dancers are introduced into the pattern. Could I write a paper on it? Heck no. But I definitely have a basic idea of the core concept.
For those of you interested in more of these surprisingly charming videos, note that this isn’t Tan’s first venture into the land of academic dance. In 2011, he and his crew took to the stage to demonstrate the various stages of sex. Fruit fly sex.
Have fun with that one. I know I did.
Image Credit: Thinkstock