You may never look at clouds the same way again. A video created by three atmospheric science graduate students at the University of Helsinki features an original rap song and choreography explaining how groups of atoms stick together to form the billowy shapes in our sky. And it has just won Science’s annual “Dance Your Ph.D.” contest.
It took 2 months of prep and rehearsal for the “scientific cluster,” as the students call themselves, to finish the video. They used drones and green screen effects to show cloud molecules spinning, colliding, and sticking together, all while the scientists sing. “Our main goal was to show nonscientific muggles that science can be fun, silly, and exciting,” says contest winner Jakub Kubečka, who was inspired to participate in the competition after a friend was a finalist a few years ago. He then recruited two colleagues to help with the song, lyrics, and filming.
The Dance Your Ph.D. contest has been challenging scientists to explain their research through dance for 14 years now. The competition is run by John Bohannon, a former correspondent for Science and now the director of science at Primer, an artificial intelligence company that currently sponsors the tournament.
The COVID-19 pandemic made things more challenging this year. The Finnish group shot most of its video outdoors or in empty laboratories, for example, and the dancers playing the molecules filmed themselves individually in front of green screens.
But the restrictions didn’t dampen the students’ enthusiasm. Their rap is full of sick burns like “I’m the first author, you’re just et al.” and their choreography was inspired both by Belgian artist Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker and the comedy stylings of subversive U.S. comedians Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim.
“Before filming, we had basically sat inside our own homes for 9 months, not socializing at all,” says co-creator Ivo Neefjes. “It was just fun to see each other again and work on something together.”
The group, which won both the physics category and top prize, beat out 39 competitors for $2000—and eternal geek fame. A panel of judges composed of previous winners and world-renowned artists and scientists looked for the best combinations of science and art.
“Some of the production levels are incredible, although that doesn’t necessarily lead to better art or communication of the science through dance,” says juror Carl Fink, director of the dance company Black Label Movement. “The videos that received my highest marks did so because they achieved this merge.”
The judges also selected winners in the categories of chemistry, biology, and social sciences, who will receive $750 each. They also crowned the winner of a new category created this year—COVID-19—which comes with its own $500 award.
The winner of that honor is Heather Masson-Forsythe at Oregon State University, Corvallis. She’s looking for new drugs that could block SARS-CoV-2 and stop viral replication. In her dance, she becomes the virus’ different proteins, spinning and moving erratically. She also uses a flaming red scarf to symbolize the virus’ genetic material.
The scientist-ballerina is no amateur. She has been perfecting her dance steps since she was 10. “I had to think about the movement of this virus proteins I work with every day but can’t actually see,” Masson-Forsythe says.
Here is the complete list of winners.
Overall winner and physics category winner
Jakub Kubečka, “Formation, structure, and stability of atmospheric molecular clusters”
Chemistry category winner
Mikael Minier, “Biomimetic carboxylate-bridged diiron complexes: from solution behavior to modeling the secondary coordination sphere”
Social sciences category winner
Magdalena Dorner-Pau, “Playful (de)scribers: examination of performative methods for the promotion of descriptive skills of children in linguistically diverse elementary school classes using the example of image description”
Biology category winner
Julienne Fanon, “Fragmentation of plastics: effect of the environment and the nature of the polymer on the size and the shape of generated fragments”
COVID-19 category winner
Heather Masson-Forsythe, “Biochemical & biophysical studies of the COVID-19 nucleocapsid protein with RNA”
Judges of this year’s contest:
The Semantic Scholar team at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence