Trash-talking physicist wins ‘Dance Your PhD’ contest

‘I’m the first author, you’re just et al,’ raps Jakub Kubecka on his way to £2,000 prize

March 3, 2021
Dance Your PhD: Jakub Kubecka
Source: Faustine Cros

A Finnish rooftop rap has won Science magazine’s annual “Dance Your PhD” competition.

Jakub Kubecka, a student at the University of Helsinki’s Institute for Atmospheric and Earth System Research, is working on atmospheric molecular clusters and was keen to find a way of conveying to “non-scientific muggles that science can be fun, silly and exciting”. He therefore joined forces with two friends, Ivo Neefjes and Vitus Besel, to produce a video featuring some crude dance moves, computer animation, green screens and footage from drones to explore how clusters “rotate or vibrate or translate in space”.

Computer simulations, they sing, mean that “Schrödinger’s equations will solve all my problems. I’ll never have to leave my chair even for a moment…Coffee is my fuel and sole means of hydration.” There is a whiteboard demonstration of the seven steps to scientific success in their field: from “Turn on the computer” to “Optimise the structures”, and “Filter out the crap” to “Cash in the Nobel prize”. They also offer a fine trash-talking rap line: “I’m the first author, you’re just et al.”

The annual Dance Your PhD competition was launched in 2008 by John Bohannon, then a contributing correspondent for Science and now director of science at the artificial intelligence company Primer, which sponsors the prize. Entrants were required to produce their videos while complying with local Covid-19 restrictions, but the competition still attracted 40 submissions.

“We adapted the video so we never had to be with more than two people, an actor and cameraman, in a room indoors,” recalled Mr Kubecka. “A large part of the film also took place outside. In our infinite wisdom, we had decided that we would only wear short-sleeved shirts throughout the video, which the Finnish winter weather made us suffer for…We also had problems with the radars of the Finnish meteorological institute messing with our drone signal.”

Along with $2,750 (£1,970) for the Finnish physics team as the overall winners, there were three separate $750 prizes for researchers in biology, social science and chemistry who produced dances explaining plastic pollution, language teaching and “biomimetic carboxylate-bridged diiron complexes”.

This year, there was additional $500 prize for the best dance based on Covid research. It was won by Heather Masson-Forsythe of Oregon State University, who has been dancing since the age of 10. She decided to portray the virus’ spinning proteins, using a flaming red scarf to symbolise its genetic material.

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