Physicist Wins Dance Your Ph.D. With Trash-talking Rap on Molecular Clusters

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Dance Your Ph.D. competition winner Jakub Kubecka, center, with colleagues Vitus Besel, left, and Ivo Neefjes.
Dance Your Ph.D. competition winner Jakub Kubecka, center, with colleagues Vitus Besel, left, and Ivo Neefjes.Credit: Faustine Cross

First came the Ig Nobels, prizes for weird research that makes you laugh, then makes you think. Then came Dance Your Ph.D., in which doctoral candidates or holders of a Ph.D. in the sciences compete to present their doctoral subject through interpretive dance, as one does. 

And the grand winner of the 13th competition, held this year under the mark of the coronavirus pandemic, was Finland’s Jakub Kubecka for his trash-talking rap dance with colleagues, interpreting his studies on the formation, structure and stability of atmospheric molecular clusters.

The video features “endearingly crude dance moves, computer animation and drone video footage,” as the American Association for the Advancement of Science kindly put it.

Making the video took weeks. “In our infinite wisdom, we had decided that we would only wear short sleeve shirts throughout the video, which the Finnish winter weather made us suffer for,” Kubecka told the press. “Each outdoor shot started with us throwing away our jackets just off screen, performing the choreography, and then running to get our jackets again.”

Another snag was radar from the Finnish Meteorological Institute “messing with” their drone signal. “So, sometimes it would just fly away to the Baltic Sea. Still, we somehow managed to put it all together,” he observed.

What did Kubecka actually study for his doctorate? “The atmosphere contains a variety of different gas molecules. When these molecules collide with each other, they can stick together and form groups of molecules; molecular clusters,” he explains to Haaretz. “Most molecular clusters break immediately apart as they are unstable. However, some of them are stable because some molecules are able to form strong bonds between them, and these clusters can eventually grow further into aerosol particles, mist, clouds, etc.”

The better we understand the processes revolving around molecular clusters, he says, the better we can understand the role of aerosol particles in air quality. “Our studies focus on atmospheric molecular clusters that are stable enough to grow into nanoparticles. Understanding nanoparticle formation in the atmosphere leads, for example, to better weather predictions, climate models and evaluation of climate change,” Kubecka says.

Jakub Kubecka, Vitus Besel and Ivo Neefjes, with Faustine Cross in front. Credit: Faustine Cross

It has also become clear that ultrafine particles (nanoparticles) breathed into the lungs cause millions of premature deaths worldwide every year, he points out. “Knowing and understanding the processes related to atmospheric molecular clusters can make it easier to evaluate the dangers posed by air pollution and hopefully lead to policies or technologies that improve, for example, urban air quality.” 

Normally, the contest covers four broad categories: biology, chemistry, physics and social sciences, AAAS explains. This year, it offered a fifth category: COVID-19 research.

How does one actually apply to this? As the association explains: 1) Turn your Ph.D. thesis into a dance. 2) Post the video on YouTube. 3) Submit the link by the deadline. Candidates must have a Ph.D. or be working on one; it must be in the sciences; and they must participate in the dance. Because of COVID-19, the organizers specified that appropriate rules apply and they would “favor solo dances or dances in which participants are clearly separated at all times. Safety before salsa!”

As the outright winner, Kubecka was awarded $2,750. The other category winners each received $750, while the winner of the COVID-19 section received $500.

“Me, Vitus and Ivo really enjoyed the dancing, rapping, recording and filming. The main purpose was to have fun and show other people that science is not only for nerds,” Kubecka told Haaretz – noting that, initially, he hadn’t meant to sing “as I have zero experience with melodic sounds coming from my mouth.”

But sing he did, the video was well-received among the scientific community and they won the competition, he says.

Asked what he would do with his new-found riches, Kubecka says, “Initially, we thought to put everything on red 18 in a casino. But now we figured we should plan a ‘thank you’ virtual meeting with some food and drinks for everyone who supported our project, and also save some of the money for a real-life party whenever circumstances allow. We will also probably invest some money in the next video that we plan to do next year. Perhaps, we should also put some money into dancing lessons. … And what is left will go to GameStop stock (GME). We like the stock.” Good luck with that too!

The winner in the biology category was Julienne Fanon, a postdoc at the University of Le Mans, with her interpretative dance on “Fragmentation of plastics: Effect of the environment and the nature of the polymer on the size and the shape of generated fragments.”

In chemistry, the prize was taken by Mikael Minier, who did his Ph.D. at MIT. He explains through dance “Biomimetic carboxylate-bridged diiron complexes: From solution behavior to modeling the secondary coordination sphere.” Respect.

In social sciences, the prize went to Magdalena Dorner-Pau of the University of Graz for her dance interpretation of “Examination of performative methods for the promotion of descriptive skills of children in linguistically diverse elementary school classes using the example of image description.” 

The judging was arranged by John Bohannon, a former contributing correspondent for Science who founded and still runs the contest on the magazine’s behalf, AAAS stated. This year’s contest was sponsored by the AI company Primer.

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