November 4, 2014

You’ll probably never have occasion to explain how tornadoes might disrupt the biological relationships between tree seedlings and soil organisms. But if you do, you almost certainly won’t do it by swinging from a trapeze as friends and acquaintances writhe around on the floor below.

But then, you’re not Uma Nagendra, a doctoral candidate in plant biology at the University of Georgia. By choreographing and performing a piece called “Plant-soil feedbacks after severe tornado damage,” Nagendra has just snagged first place in the seventh annual international Dance your Ph.D. contest, sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Science magazine and HighWire Press.

The curmudgeons among us might be tempted to smirk—especially when they find out one of the runners-up was honored for his interpretive dance titled “Reduced-fat mayonnaise: Can’t maintain its stability.”

A conversation with Nagendra, however, will nip that impulse in the bud. “Lots of people are looking for ways to communicate science better, since we haven’t done so well in the past,” she says. “For me, the value of incorporating dance into science communication is that it can help illustrate complex ideas.” For anyone who relies on photos, graphics or illustrations to help us understand scientific concepts—which is to say, just about everyone—this should make all sorts of sense.

Nagendra, first heard about the contest a few years ago. She has no formal training in dance (“I dabble in different social dance forms,” she says, which means she likes go dancing for fun) but she knew immediately that she wanted to enter someday. She had some friends who were exploring trapeze as a kind dance medium—think Cirque du Soleil—and when she began taking trapeze classes herself, she was hooked. “The choreography took a while,” Nagendra says. “I had to do it in bits and pieces, since I couldn’t exactly practice in my living room.”

The other trapeze performers who appear in the piece are from the class, but most of the people playing soil pathogens on the ground are “grad students or friends of friends who thought it would be fun to roll around on the floor and pretend to be a fungus.” (She recruited some of them on Facebook, with a post that urged interested parties to, “unleash your inner nematode.”)

For winning the contest, Nagendra will get a $1000 prize and an all-expenses-paid trip to Stanford University next may for a screening of all the winning entries (you can read about all 12 finalists here, and read the official announcement at the Science website).

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