When she isn't out in the forest gathering data for her Ph.D. in plant biology at the University of Georgia, Athens, Uma Nagendra spends a good deal of her time hanging upside down from a trapeze doing circus aerials. "It turns out that there are a lot of scientists doing it," she says. To combine the two halves of her life, she teamed up with her fellow aerialists to create the midair dance based on her scientific research. Nagendra's circus extravaganza (see video above) is the overall winner of this year's “Dance Your Ph.D.” contest.
This is the 7th year of the contest—sponsored by Science, AAAS (publisher of Science), and HighWire Press—which challenges scientists around the world to explain their Ph.D. research in the most jargon-free medium of all: dance. Nagendra was one of four Ph.D. dances chosen by an expert panel of scientists and artists from this year's 12 finalists.
Nagendra's own home city of New Orleans, Louisiana, was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. As the human residents put their lives back together, she became curious about how the natural world recovers from disasters. After she became a biology Ph.D. student at the University of Georgia in 2011, she realized that she could answer this question herself by gathering data out in the field. But destructive events like Hurricane Katrina are rare on the timescale of a Ph.D. So Nagendra focused on a natural disaster that occurs far more frequently and does more localized damage: tornadoes.
Tornadoes are destructive events, ripping up the surface of Earth, crushing buildings, and tossing automobiles in their paths. And based on some models of climate change, they are likely to become more frequent and damaging. But according to a study of forest soil ecology, tornadoes also do some good—for trees, that is. It turns out that tree seedlings get a respite from certain parasitic fungi in a tornado’s aftermath, allowing them to flourish.
For winning the BIOLOGY category and the overall prize, Nagendra receives $1000 and a free trip to Stanford University in May 2015, where her video will be screened.
The winners of the other three categories—PHYSICS, CHEMISTRY, and SOCIAL SCIENCE—cover a wide range of both scholarship and dance. Hans Rinderknecht filmed a live performance of his Ph.D. dance at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, which explained how he uses light to trigger nuclear fusion. To explain the chemistry of emulsions like mayonnaise, a group led by Saioa Alvarez of the University of the Basque Country in Leioa, Spain, even wrote their own song. (And lipids have never looked so sexy.) Costumes were key for another Spanish team, David Manzano Cosano of the Complutense University of Madrid, who danced about the history of technology and colonialism in the Pacific.
Each category winner receives $500. We congratulate them all!
Winner, BIOLOGY and overall:
University of Georgia, USA
University of the Basque Country, Spain
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA
Winner, SOCIAL SCIENCE:
David Manzano Cosano
Complutense University of Madrid, Spain
Winner, online audience vote:
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, USA
This year's judges:
Janet Echelman, independent artist
David Feldman, independent engineer
Suzanne Walsh, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Allan Adams, MIT
Rebecca Saxe, MIT
Paula Hammond, MIT
Marc Abrahams, Improbable Research
Robin Abrahams, Boston Globe
Justin Werfel, Harvard University
Matt Kent, associate artistic director, Pilobolus
Emily Kent, education coordinator, Pilobolus
Renee Jaworski, associate artistic director, Pilobolus