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Ph.D. dance-off makes science sexy

This year's "Dance Your Ph.D." winners include a "love story" about titanium alloy and bone tissue as well as performances inspired by fruit-fly sex, pigeon courtship and X-ray chromatography.

If you think these dances sound too dorky, they're not. They're funny. Beautiful. Even sexy.

That's not to say "Microstructure-Property Relationships in Ti2448 Components Produced by Selective Laser Melting" is anything like a spangly samba on "Dancing With the Stars." The science dance is far cleverer.

Joel Miller, a biomedical engineer at the University of Western Australia in Perth, got together with some high-stepping friends and shot 2,200 still images that were converted into a stop-action animation. "We didn't have a video camera," he told ScienceNOW's John Bohannon, the organizer of the "Dance Your Ph.D." contest.

The resulting 4-minute video tells the story of Titanium Man (played by Miller) and Bone Woman (Sara Fontaine), and how a blend of titanium's alpha and beta crystalline forms makes a perfect match for bone tissue. The laser-heated alloy could bring about a happy ending for the love story: better, longer-lasting hip and knee replacements.

Bohannon created the Ph.D. dance contest in 2008, under the sponsorship of the journal Science, to give doctoral students a chance to transform their research into dance routines. This year, a record 55 dance videos were entered.

Miller's biomedical love story earned him not only the top spot in the physics category, but also the grand prize of $1,000 and a free trip to TEDx Brussels, a gathering of scientists, artists and business leaders in Belgium.

Three other videos won $500 prizes:

Cedric Kai Wei Tan, a biologist at the University of Oxford, won the biology category with his depiction of the fruit fly's mating dance. It turns out that females prefer to mate with brothers who are recognized by scent.

"Females preferentially mate with males that are related to the first mates because there might be immunological and survival costs associated with mating with males that are unrelated to their first mate," Tan says.

The Ph.D. dance traces the complex sequence of sniffing, licking and chasing that goes into the fruit fly's mating ritual. Let's see them try that on "Dancing With the Stars":

FoSheng Hsu, a structural biologist at Cornell University, was tops in the chemistry category for his solo interpretation of the time-consuming process for extracting proteins from E. coli bacteria and determining their structure through X-ray crystallography.

To get the gist, you have to read the description of each step of the process as you watch the video.

During the different stages of the dance, Hsu portrays the E. coli, the affinity beads used during purification, the scientist doing the crystallization, the screen for X-ray diffraction images and even the three-dimensional structure of the protein being studied.

The tricky procedure "is crucial for not just understanding the cellular function but also provides a fundamental step to drug design," Hsu says. To tell the truth, I don't know which is trickier ... X-ray crystallography or X-ray choreography:

Emma Ware, a behavioral biologist at Queen's University in Canada, won the social science prize for a dance mimicking the interactions of pigeons during courtship. Ware tinkered with the pigeons' perceptions by showing the males time-delayed video of the females' movements. If the delays were more than a few seconds, the males were thrown off their rhythm and the courtship dance was disrupted.

There's yet another twist: The delays didn't have much effect on male-male or female-female interactions. "There is something 'special' about courtship dynamics," Ware reported in her dance video.

Bohannon said Ware's ability to replicate the pigeon experiment with a human dance partner was an "impressive choreographic feat." See if you agree:

More dancing with the scientists: 

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