Turns out that of all geeks in the world, scientists may rank as the most interpretive dancers – especially when there's a contest involved.
That's the basic premise of a dance competition called "Dance Your Ph.D." It's the brainchild of John Bohannon, a scientist who studies microbiology and artificial intelligence. The idea is to get scientists to explain their research through dance. The contest has been around for 14 years. It's run by Science Magazine and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and also sponsored by Primer, an artificial intelligence company where Bohannon works.
"We had 40 dances this year," Bohannon tells NPR's Morning Edition. "Scientists come out of the woodwork all around the world and write their own lyrics, do their own dance moves. It's just next level."
The winning entry came from three atmospheric science graduate students at the University of Helsinki. They created a rap video, complete with choreography — and a breakdown as well as a catchy chorus — to explain how clouds are formed.
"They used drone footage, they used comedy, they used costumes. It's a very polished piece of art," Bohannon says. "But it's also good science. They explained something really complicated, but I would have enjoyed watching that video even if it wasn't about science."
Bohannon says the judging was done by a panel of scientists, artists and dancers.
"The way they're scored is on three dimensions: scientific merit, artistic merit and then, how well they brought it all together – how well did they combine science and art," he says.
One of Bohannon's favorite videos this year came from a French science student, Fanon Julienne. She used two teams of belly dancers to explain the way plastic breaks down and pollutes water.
"She's really using the dance to explain the physical mechanisms. You can't always do that. But every once in a while, you have a subject where you can actually explain it with your body and I think she pulled that off really well," Bohannon says.
The competition's inception dates back to 2006. Bohannon was organizing a New Year's Eve gathering with some friends and wanted it to be a dance party.
"It's very hard to get anyone to dance, particularly scientists. Their parties are not on the dancey side," he says.
So, Bohannon turned it into a contest.
"One thing you can count on with scientists is they're competitive and they have a sense of humor about their work so I thought, let's just put it all together."
Dance Your Ph.D is broken down into four categories: biology, chemistry, physics and social sciences. This year's competition included a special new category: COVID-19 research.
The winning COVID-19 video was produced by Heather Masson-Forsythe of Corvallis, Ore., who used dance to explain how to stop the coronavirus from replicating.
"She's capturing not only the science and explaining it, but she's also capturing what it's like to solve scientific mysteries in tiny little droplets of liquid. That's just really cool," Bohannon says.
For claiming the top prize, the grad students from Helsinki won $2,000 — but more importantly, Bohannon says, they have achieved "Internet geek fame."
"You know when you're Internet geek famous for dancing your Ph.D, that's never gonna go away," he says. "It becomes your calling card."