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Tiny “nano-sponges” inspire killer moves in 2023 Dance Your PhD winning video

Checkers Marshall’s award-winning dance depicted electrons moving around in crystalline materials that have a variety of applications.

University of Oregon chemist Checkers Marshall took top honors in the 2023 Dance Your PhD contest, combining hand fans, blue balloons, and original lyrics to make a dance video explaining their work on “nano-sponge” materials for use in carbon capture and drug delivery. Other winning videos provided creative takes on how local trees in the Amazon rainforest produce a protective hormone in response to drought; diffusing ions at the nanoscale, illustrated with a tango; and an artificial intelligence model called PsychGenerator that aims to bring personality and mental health attributes to AI.

As we’ve reported previously, the Dance Your PhD contest was established in 2008 by science journalist John Bohannon. It was previously sponsored by Science magazine and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and is now sponsored by AI company Primer, where Bohannon is the director of science. Bohannon told Slate in 2011 that he came up with the idea while trying to figure out how to get a group of stressed-out PhD students in the middle of defending their theses to let off a little steam. So he put together a dance party at Austria’s Institute of Molecular Biotechnology, including a contest for whichever candidate could best explain their thesis topics with interpretive dance.

The contest was such a hit that Bohannon started getting emails asking when the next would be—and Dance Your PhD has continued ever since. It’s now in its 15th year. There are four broad categories: physics, chemistry, biology, and social science, with a fairly liberal interpretation of what topics fall under each. Winners were chosen from 28 entries submitted from 12 different countries. All category winners receive $500, while Marshall, as the overall champion, will receive an additional $2,000. And the contest has a new sponsor this year: Sandbox AQ, an Alphabet spinoff focused on tackling large problems by bringing together artificial intelligence and quantum technologies.

Marshall’s PhD thesis dealt with metal-organic frameworks (MOFs), crystalline polymer materials formed by binding metal ions with polydentate organic linkers. The resulting porous network is sponge-like, making these materials ideal for carbon capture applications, as well as drug delivery, detoxifying nerve agents, and water purification. Marshall aims to make smaller and more efficient MOFs. These nano-MOFs can be modified by adding a molecule to stop the crystal’s growth or removing an electron to free up the flow of electrons through the structure.

Marshall shot their video in the lab and a friend’s backyard. They brought high school and college videomaking experience to the project, as well as a long-standing love of juggling, spinning, and other forms of “flow arts.” For instance, Marshall used fans to represent the electrons in a standard MOF—“I can’t dance unless there’s something in my hands”—passing the fans back and forth with a friend to show how metal ions (represented by blue papier-mâché balloons) exchange electrons.

To represent the nano-MOFs, Marshall used a toy Hoberman sphere, a popular child’s toy inspired by the isokinetic structure patented by artist and engineer Chuck Hoberman. It looks like a geodesic dome, but thanks to joints that act like scissors, the sphere can fold into a fraction of its original size.

Marshall even wrote their own music, having written and performed slam poetry for years, complete with a sly reference to The Lord of the Rings trilogy. “I thought, ‘How can I make my thesis into a one-page slam poem? How can I make it, like, sound cool? And hopefully make it rhyme a little bit,’” Marshall told Science. “Making the video and writing my thesis were approximately an equal amount of work. [But these initiatives] really help aspiring scientists see this other side of science where we’re also just normal, fun, creative people.”

Check out the winners of the biology, physics, and social sciences categories below.

Biology category winner

Israel Sampaio Filho, National Institute of Amazonian Research, Leaf abscisic acid (ABA) biosynthesis: the main source of Amazon rainforest response to warming

Abscisic Acid (ABA) at the Heart of Amazon Rainforest Response to Warming.

Physics category winner

Dr. Evgenii Glushkov, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne, Exploring optically active defects in wide-bandgap materials using fluorescence microscopy

Tango of the Protons.

Social Sciences category winner

Huy Vu, Stony Brook University, Artificial Intelligence with Personality

The PsychGenerator.

Listing image by Checkers Marshal

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