First Person: John Bohannon

The idea that scientists could dance their PhD started as a drunken party stunt about five years ago. I was living in Vienna and working as a contributor to Science magazine at the time.

I helped organize a big party with some scientist friends and, to make the party more interesting, decided to do a dance contest. I read the title out of each guest’s thesis – titles that were mostly obscure and indecipherable except to specialists in the field – and then the contestants danced.

I made a video of the evening and put it online, and it wasn’t long before I started getting emails from scientists all over the world asking me when the next contest was. I put the idea to my editor at Science, suggesting that the magazine could put up some prize money and do an online contest. My editor agreed and I put an advertisement in Science. Videos arrived from all over the world. Today, we’re in the fifth year of the contest and the quality keeps getting better and better.

This year’s winner studies hip replacement. He works with titanium and lasers and, if you read his research, it’s very abstract. He also didn’t have a video camera. So he took thousands of photographs of himself, his sister and his girlfriend doing the dance. He strung the pictures together to make stop-motion animation. At one point he was flying off the ground. He must have had to jump-click-jump-click. The whole thing has a brilliant sense of humour and an epic feeling but, most important, by the end you totally understand what his PhD is about. For a film to succeed, the audience needs to understand the concepts as well as be entertained.

Last year the winner was a laboratory of Canadians. They did Scottish highland dancing to illustrate a complex but important breakthrough in molecular biology. It’s very funny but also manages to explain the science. The video is now being used at Harvard in the introductory molecular biology class.

Of course, not all the films have humour. Some just fail but even in failure they can have a charm. One of my favourites is the bee guy. It’s one of the best dances I have ever seen – while at the same time being an awful dance. The scientist studies bees and his setting is the grassy field with beehives where he works. The man emerges from a hive dressed as a bee and earnestly begins mimicking bee behaviour. You can’t help but be moved. I’d like to create an alternative prize to recognise dancers like him.

The competition has become really competitive. Even though the grand prize is only $1,000 and a free trip to Brussels, I think one of the attractions for scientists is that they are having their work recognised by one of the top scientific journals in the world. Although I can say confidently that winning the competition offers no advantage for scientists trying to publish their work in Science.

One of the reasons the competition works is that it operates a very weird, specific constraint so that only certain people can take part. Each person only has one option: to appear in his or her own PhD research dance. It’s like a secret society, but I think it appeals to scientists because their lives are hard work. Most of them are poor and obscure but with this competition, they can exhibit themselves. This whole contest is an experiment for outgoing, exhibitionist scientists. It gives them a platform.

Of course, I have a day job too. I’m also a correspondent for Science. These days I cover war for the news section. I’ve been focusing on the data side of war and its most controversial aspect: how you count the dead. So I guess the dance competition gives my working life a little balance.

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