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Pramodh Senarath Yapa

The winner of this year’s ‘Dance Your Ph.D.’ contest turned physics into art

Scientific research can be a lonely pursuit. And for Pramodh Senarath Yapa, a physicist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, even the subject of his research is lonely: singleton electrons wandering through superconducting material. “Superconductivity relies on lone electrons pairing up when cooled below a certain temperature,” Yapa says. “Once I began to think of electrons as unsociable people who suddenly become joyful once paired up, imagining them as dancers was a no-brainer!”

Six weeks of choreographing and songwriting later, Yapa scooped the 2018 “Dance Your Ph.D.” contest. The judges—a panel of world-renowned artists and scientists—chose Yapa’s swinging electron dance from 50 submissions based on both artistic and scientific merits. He takes home $1000 and immortal geek fame.

“I remember hearing about Dance Your Ph.D. many years ago and being amazed at all the entries,” Yapa says. “This is definitely a longtime dream come true.” His research, meanwhile, has evolved from superconductivity—which he pursued at the University of Victoria in Canada, where he completed a master’s degree—to the physics of superfluids, the focus of his Ph.D. research at the University of Alberta.

This is the 11th year of Dance Your Ph.D. hosted by Science and AAAS. The contest challenges scientists around the world to explain their research through the most jargon-free medium available: interpretive dance.

"Most people would not normally think of interpretive dance as a tool for scientific communication," says artist Alexa Meade, one of the judges of the contest. "However, the body can express conceptual thoughts through movement in ways that words and data tables cannot. The results are both artfully poetic and scientifically profound."

The 12 finalists were announced on 4 February in each of the four broad categories: biology, chemistry, physics, and social science. Yapa won both the physics category and the overall prize. “Using sweet partner dancing for the Cooper Pairs of shy electrons and aggressive metalheads as the spin impurities, Pramodh was able to create an intuitive visual representation for the nonlocal electrodynamics of superconductivity,” Meade says.

Below are the four winners selected by the judging panel; one of them was also the audience favorite, determined through an online vote.

Overall winner and Physics category

Pramodh Senarath Yapa, “Non-Local Electrodynamics of Superconducting Wires: Implications for Flux Noise and Inductance”

Winner, Biology category and Audience Favorite

Olivia Gosseries, “Measuring consciousness after severe brain injury using brain stimulation”

Winner, Chemistry category

Shari Finner, “Percolation Theory - Conducting Plastics”

Winner, Social Science category

Roni Zohar, “Movements as a Door for Learning Physics Concepts – Integrating Embodied Pedagogy in Teaching”

The 2018 Dance Your Ph.D. judges:

John Bohannon, the inventor of the “Dance Your Ph.D.” contest, is a former contributing correspondent for Science and still runs the contest on its behalf. He is now director of science at Primer, an artificial intelligence company headquartered in San Francisco, California.