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Lord of the Rings–quoting performance wins this year’s ‘Dance Your Ph.D.’ contest

Twirling and flying hand fans, catchy Lord of the Rings references, and 20 blue papier-mâché balloons. University of Oregon chemist Checkers Marshall put together that strange combination to create this year’s overall winning video in Science’s long-running Dance Your Ph.D. contest. The use of fans, which represented electrons, was nonnegotiable for Marshall: “I can’t dance unless there’s something in my hands.”

Marshall’s video, shot in their lab and in a friend’s backyard, aimed to explain their thesis on metal-organic frameworks (MOFs), crystal materials made up of metal ions bound to a compound. Because of the materials’ porous nature, MOFs can act like sponges and allow for the capture of gases such as carbon dioxide. The dance video, in which the blue balloons stood in for ions, depicted how Marshall’s Ph.D. work aims to make these materials smaller, more effective, and more useful for other applications, from water filtration to nerve agent detoxification. The video portrayed different modification strategies, such as adding another molecule to stop the growth of the crystal, or taking an electron away to allow the metal ions to flow more freely through the structure.

Tiny MOFs, what Marshall calls “nano-MOFs,” are the star of the video. They are represented by a toy Hoberman sphere, one of those geodesic structures that can shrink from several meters in diameter into a small ball as its joints fold in. Marshall brought in their videomaking experience from high school and college classes and a decadelong love of “flow art,” object manipulations such as juggling and spinning. Marshall passes the fans back and forth in a coordinated fashion with a friend to symbolize electron exchanges between the metal ions.

Marshall also channeled years of writing and performing slam poetry to pen a song to accompany the dance. “I thought, ‘How can I make my thesis into a one-page slam poem? How can I make it like sound cool? And hopefully make it rhyme a little bit.’”

The song was a hit with the judges. One, visual artist Alexa Meade, said she was impressed that Marshall’s dance showed more types of expression than others the judges viewed.

Marshall’s enthusiasm for their research also caught the eye of judge Katrien Kolenberg, an astrophysicist and science communicator at the University of Antwerp. “I’ve watched a lot of videos, but that’s one that really stood out, because it was clearly done by scientists very passionate about their work,” she says. “That passion just sparks off the screen when it’s there.”

The contest is newly sponsored by Sandbox AQ, a company spun out of Alphabet focused on tackling large problems by bringing together artificial intelligence and quantum technologies. Created by John Bohannon, a former correspondent for Science who is now director of science at the artificial intelligence (AI) company Primer, the competition aims to inspire researchers to communicate their studies through dance. Now in its 15th year, the contest received 28 entries submitted from 12 countries this year. It spans four categories: biology, chemistry, physics, and social sciences, each with its own winner. The category’s winners receive $500; the overall champion wins an extra $2000.

“What made me happy about judging [the dances] was seeing all these different scientists all looking for the truth in the way nature works, but at the same time, doing that within their culture,” Kolenberg says. For example, she points out that the video submitted by the winner of the biology category takes place within the Amazon rainforest in Manaus, Brazil. A crew of dozens of people dance to explain how a hormone produced by local trees protects the plants against stressful conditions like drought.

For Marshall, who wrote their dissertation while working on the video for the contest, dancing with the goal of communicating science was challenging. “Making the video and writing my thesis were approximately an equal amount of work,” they say. But Marshall feels it’s worth showing scientists have interests outside of the lab. “[These initiatives] really help aspiring scientists see this other side of science where we’re also just normal, fun, creative people.”

All the winning videos can be found below. If you’re inspired, we hope to see your submissions next year!

Overall winner and chemistry category winner

Checkers Marshall, University of Oregon, “Nanoparticles of Metal-Organic Frameworks: A General Synthetic Method and Size-Dependent Properties”

Biology category winner

Israel Sampaio Filho, National Institute of Amazonian Research, “Leaf abscisic acid (ABA) biosynthesis: the main source of Amazon rainforest response to warming”

Physics category winner

Dr. Evgenii Glushkov, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne, “Exploring optically active defects in wide-bandgap materials using fluorescence microscopy”

Social sciences category winner

Huy Vu, Stony Brook University, “Artificial Intelligence with Personality”


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