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Dancing To The Tune Of Ph.D.

If you've ever sat through a (long, long) university graduation ceremony, you may have taken the time to peruse the dissertation titles of graduating doctoral students. Depending on the university and department, you'd probably find a sampling something like this:

Preliminary Measurements For An Electron EDM Experiment In ThO (Yulia Gurevich, 2012, Harvard University)

Higher-order Chromatin Organization In Hematopoietic Transcription (Wulan Deng, 2013, University of Pennsylvania)

Internalism, Practical Relations, And Psychologism (Colin Patrick, 2012, University of Chicago)

Anxiety And Stress: Interactions Between Bed Nucleus Of The Stria Terminalis Pituitary Adenylate Cyclase-Activating Peptide And The Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis (Kimberly M. Lezak, 2012-2013, The University of Vermont)

Immunogenicity Of Gold Nanoshell/Silica Core Nanoplasmonics And Photothermal Induced-Cell Death (Hai T. Nguyen, 2012, University of Washington)

Wouldn't it be nice to know what these actually mean? To have a transparent glimpse into the nation's cutting edge research and its practical and theoretical implications?

Of course, it's no accident that Ph.D. dissertations rarely make it as mass-market paperbacks or inspire popular sitcoms. There's a reason it takes four (or five or six or seven ... ) years to complete a Ph.D., and there's an important role for communicating as an expert to experts.

But, increasingly, there have been efforts to make contemporary science more interesting and accessible to a broad public, including forums for scientists to share "plain English" versions of their scientific abstracts, podcasts and audio programs for non-experts (such as Science Friday and RadioLab), and the open science movement more generally. A great example that stretches beyond science is Philosophy Talk, a radio program and podcast where you can hear two philosophers and their guests work through difficult conundrums with minimal jargon (and with no footnotes — a remarkable feat for the philosophically trained).

Among the most creative ways to translate contemporary science — and, in particular, the topics of doctoral dissertations — into a popular form comes from the Dance Your Ph.D. contest. Sponsored by Science magazine and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the competition invites doctoral students and Ph.D. recipients to explain their research through interpretive dance.

The 2013 winner, announced last Thursday, was Cedric Tan, a biology Ph.D. whose dissertation was titled "Sperm Competition Between Brothers And Female Choice." It's eye-catching.

The Reader Favorite Award went to the submission from Andres Florez, a Ph.D. at the Cancer Research Center at Heidelberg, who translated his work on cancer cell biology with Latin American flair.

But all 31 submissions deserve a round of applause. Among my favorites, psychology Ph.D. student Tina Sundelin's entry, "Sleep Loss In A Social World," presents the effects of sleep deprivation with a parallel report of two days: one after a poor night's sleep and one after a good night's sleep. Neuroscience Ph.D. Julia Basso's submission, "Investigation Of The Behavioral Processes And Neurobiological Substrates involved in the motivation for voluntary wheel running in the rat," features an effective combination of dance and informative text, with an oddly humanizing portrayal of invasive animal research. Plenty of other entries are worth a view.

Admittedly, these videos won't teach you much science. But they might just inspire you to read up on sexual conflicts in Odonates or the bioeconomic consequences of climate change. And they might help combat narrow stereotypes about scientists' interests and abilities. As I've argued before, we need more scientists who dance salsa, and the Dance Your Ph.D. contest is a nice showcase for those who already do.

You can keep up with more of what Tania Lombrozo is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tania Lombrozo is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, as well as an affiliate of the Department of Philosophy and a member of the Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences. Lombrozo directs the Concepts and Cognition Lab, where she and her students study aspects of human cognition at the intersection of philosophy and psychology, including the drive to explain and its relationship to understanding, various aspects of causal and moral reasoning and all kinds of learning.

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