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Physics Wins Dance Your Ph.D. Contest

After last year’s glorious win for chemistry in the annual Dance Your Ph.D. contest, held by Science magazine, the Newscripts gang was feeling pretty cocky. We thought a back-to-back win for chemists interpreting their doctoral work through dance was inevitable.

Alas, an entry in the physics category won this year’s grand prize of $1,000. The award-winning clip (below) was made by Joel Miller, a biomedical engineering graduate student at the University of Western Australia, who created a dance about his Ph.D. research on titanium alloys. With selective laser melting, a 3-D printing process that fuses metal powder together to form custom parts, Miller is developing materials with suitable strength and flexibility to be used in hip replacements. Hmmm … seems a lot like chemistry to us. We’ll take credit anyway.

The cool part is that Miller put his video together, not with a video camera (he didn’t have one), but by stringing together about 2,200 photos to make it look as though his “actors” were dancing.

But enough about the physics category.

The finalist in the chemistry category was FoSheng Hsu, a third-year grad student in Yuxin Mao’s group at Cornell University. Hsu tells Newscripts that the goal of his Ph.D. research is to obtain the crystal structure of a particular phosphoinositide phosphatase involved in trafficking of chemical species in cells. Specifically, Hsu (in video below) says he wants to get an X-ray structure of the enzyme complexed with its substrate “to better understand how they function in vivo.”

In the video, Hsu initially plays the part of E. coli, showing how an engineered bacterium produces a protein of interest. After purification and crystallization, Hsu plays the part of the protein (with a ribbon structure for his arms), demonstrating the jittery folding process with a robotic dance.

Hsu was inspired to make the video after being asked by some friends about X-ray crystallography, he says. They had just seen the movies “Contagion” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” which apparently featured crystal structures in certain scenes. “This got me thinking, ‘How do I explain a complex scientific phenomenon in the simplest way that they will remember?’ ” he recalls.

For his efforts, Hsu won the top prize in the chemistry category, which comes with $500. He says that he will donate 20% of the prize to charity. And the rest, he says, will go to “the many people waiting in line for me to take them out to dinner.”

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