Tips & Tricks

How to make a good Ph.D. dance…

Start with a clever idea. Start by explaining your Ph.D. to your friends with a 30-second time limit. It’s hard to do. You’ll find that you’re forced to boil it down to its essence. That essence is what your dance is about. Maybe your Ph.D. research is so abstract and esoteric that you have to zoom out a bit. For example, let’s say you’re doing evolutionary game theory. Day in, day out, it’s really just a lot of math and computation. So how about explaining it with an example? What is the evolutionary stable strategy in a species with a ménage à trois mating system? Yeah, now I’m starting to see a dance.

Become the dance. A lot of scientists do a great job right up to the point of actually dancing. They have a very clever idea, they make amazing costumes, they come up with perfect choreography, and then… when they actually dance, they don’t put their heart into it. It’s easy to understand why. Most people are scared to perform. They’re terrified of embarrassment. So they drag their feet as if to say to the audience, “I’m not really taking this seriously, so I’m in on the joke, too.” But you know what? There’s really nothing embarrassing about it. You’re a scientist. With your superpowers comes the responsibility to communicate the thrill of science to the public. Yes, sometimes in dance form. So dance like you mean it.

Have fun. Most importantly, it has to be something that you have fun creating. If you don’t have fun, it probably won’t be that much fun to watch. It can be a solo dance or your entire lab group. But in any case, have fun.

How to make a good video…

Shoot decent video. You’re making a video for the internet, so it doesn’t have to be a big expensive camera. As an absolute minimum, you’ll need something that can shoot videos at least 640 x 480 pixels in size. If you can get at least 1280 x 720 pixels, that’s much better. Why? Because if your Ph.D. dance is chosen as a finalist, we also want to be able to watch it on a big screen as a live audience. The iPhone has totally sufficient resolution. (Note: Shoot with more than one iPhone and you can edit them together for multiple camera angles–nice!)

Think about light. Outdoor sunlight looks good. So does focused light from above. Fluorescently-lit classrooms, not so much. But in any case, make sure there’s enough light so the dancers stand out clearly in the video.

Sound isn’t so important. This makes Ph.D. dance videos so much easier. Once you shoot the video, you can add the music later on the computer during editing. You just need a stereo playing the music so your dancers can hear it. Of course, if you’re using live music, that’s another story. Get a good microphone. You’ll want to record the live music separately (with an audio recorder) if your video camera has a cheap microphone.

But setting is important. Don’t film your dance in a cluttered space (unless it’s intentional). Ph.D. dances tend to be short, typically 1 or 2 minutes long. So you want us to focus our attention only on the dance. There are exceptions, of course. Maybe you want to film your dance in the lab, and that’s part of its charm. If you film outside on a grassy slope on a sunny day, that can be much better than the same dance in the biochemistry department’s cluttered, dimly lit seminar room. And hey, the sky is the limit. Think about public spaces, with random crowds of people as your setting. Why not?

Upload the highest resolution version of your video.

Write a really good description of your Ph.D. dance. When you upload your video, you’re asked to give a description text that will appear alongside it. This is really, really important. This is your chance to give us some clues. What do we need to know to appreciate your Ph.D. dance? Keep it short and sweet, and NO JARGON. We really don’t care that you used a Markov Chain Monte Carlo simulation. In plain language, tell us what we need to know to see your dance and go “Cool! I get it!”

More tips & tricks will come if we can think of them, or if people suggest them.

Good luck!

Here are some instructive examples from the 2009 Ph.D. dances:

“Resolving Pathways of Functional Coupling in Human Hemoglobin Using Quantitative Low Temperature Isoelectric Focusing of Asymmetric Mutant Hybrids” by Vince LiCata
Pros: Awesome choreography and performance. Vince and his grad students totally became the dance. Clever idea, well executed. Captures the essence of his Ph.D. research with a clever, well executed dance.
Cons: The lighting could be a little more dramatic. A couple of spotlights would have done the trick.

“Protein Cross-linked Hydrogels” by Aaron Esser-Kahn
Pros: Excellent editing. Lots of different perspectives. Good setting and a performance that kills.
Cons: He could give us more explanation. He fixed this, giving a nice explanation in the video’s text.  Excellent.

“Structural analysis of phosducin and its phosphorylation-regulated interaction with transducin beta-gamma” by Rachelle Gaudet
Pros: A great dance that is incredibly fun to watch. And it doesn’t seem so at first, but the different phases of the dance correspond (and explain) her protein’s various tricks.
Cons: Lighting, lighting, lighting. She used light/dark to make a point about the different states of her protein, but the end result is that it’s hard to see her. She should have used a different method, like maybe have people in unitards rush in from offstage and illuminate her with flashlights. That would have been funny.

“Tropospheric N2O isotopic composition: Instrumentation development and preliminary data for the constraint of the N2O global budget and stratospheric influence” by Kat Potter
Pros: A clever and simple idea. The position and movements of the dancers match the molecule she’s studying. And it was clearly fun to make, and that makes it fun to watch.
Cons: How about a bit more energy, guys! I wanted to see more expressiveness. A few close-ups on their faces would have helped. The scene is cluttered, and the back-lighting from the window isn’t great.

“Precipitation Initiation in Warm Clouds” by Jennifer D. Small
Pros: The idea is beautiful. The dancers are water molecules, coalescing into droplets and finally splatting on the ground. But we’re seeing it from above, so the back wall of the squash court is the ground.
Cons: Video quality is not the best. A tripod would have kept the shot steady. She also could have focused in a few times so we could get a close-up of the dancers and their interaction.

Ready to dance? Submit your video to the contest, or share your own tips in the comments below.

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