Dance Your Ph.D. winners deliver fire Finnish rap and coronavirus pirouettes

March 4, 2021 0 By boss

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Scientists worldwide continue their race to understand the mechanisms of virus infection, transmission and control in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. One of those specialists is sharing her findings through interpretive dance. 

Heather Masson-Forsythe performing an excerpt from “Biochemical & Biophysical Studies of the COVID-19 Nucleocapsid Protein with RNA.” 


GIF by Leslie Katz/CNET

Heather Masson-Forsythe, a graduate student at Oregon State University, is searching for new drugs that could stop the viral replication of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. She just won the COVID-19 research category in the annual Dance Your Ph.D. contest, which has challenged scientists to explain their research through movement for the past 14 years.  

In her winning video, Masson-Forsythe leaps and twirls through the findings of her thesis on “Biochemical & Biophysical Studies of the COVID-19 Nucleocapsid Protein with RNA.” For her research, she used nuclear magnetic resonance imaging to better study and understand the structure of the Nucleocapsid protein. This protein is encoded in the viral genome and plays a critical role in the infection cycle, protecting and packaging viral RNA as a virus assembles. It also looks good as a pirouette. 

Masson-Forsythe dances gracefully across a beach waving a flowing red scarf to symbolize the virus’ genetic material. To illustrate the nucleocapsid protein’s importance in the viral replication of SARS-COV-2, she’s suddenly in a dimly lit room, her gestures jerky and chaotic. Then she’s in a forest, getting funky. 

The scientist has been dancing since age 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. 

The Dance Your Ph.D. competition is run by John Bohannon, a former correspondent for Science magazine and now director of science at Primer, an artificial intelligence company that sponsors the tournament.

The top video overall this year comes from a trio of University of Helsinki atmospheric science graduate students researching how atoms stick together to form billowy clouds. The three incorporated original rap lyrics and choreography, computer animation and drone footage for their video, which beat 39 other contestants to take top honors in the contest, and also win the physics category. 

“Our main goal was to show nonscientific muggles that science can be fun, silly and exciting,” says Jakub Kubečka, who won a  $2,000 prize and fame in geek (and possibly dance) circles. 

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