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Biophysical chemistry professor Vincent LiCata, along with his students and colleagues, created a dance video called "A Molecular Dance in the Blood, Observed."The video won in the professor category of the national AAAS "Dance Your PhD" contest.

LSU Professor Wins National “Dance Your PhD” Contest

The “Evolution of Dance” appeared on YouTube in 2006 and gained the most all-time views for more than two years. The video features motivational speaker Judson Laipply grooving to everything from “Y.M.C.A.” and “Billie Jean” to “Ice, Ice Baby” and “U Can’t Touch This.” Teaching others through dance might seem like a stretch, especially for a scientist, but LSU professor Vincent LiCata didn’t skip a beat in the latest dance video trend: he danced his dissertation.

On February 13, LiCata, who teaches biophysical chemistry as well as an honors class on HIV and AIDS, traveled to Chicago to accept an honor for his video, “A Molecular Dance in the Blood, Observed.”

The contest is hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) along with Science. While this is the second year for the contest, it is the first year the contest was open nationwide to anyone who has or is pursuing a PhD in a science-related field. The rules were simple: make a dance video interpreting your PhD dissertation, post the video on YouTube, and write an abstract discussing how the dance represents the dissertation.

Vincent LiCata“It’s really exciting,” LiCata said. “It means I can dance a little."
YouTube Video

“It seemed fun, so I signed up as soon as I found out about it,” LiCata said. “It is a blend of art and science, so I didn’t know if I could do it.”

LiCata joined the LSU faculty in 1998 after receiving his PhD from Johns Hopkins University and doing post-doctoral research at the University of Minnesota. In order to create his dance, LiCata had to look at his dissertation nearly 20 years after it had been written.

“I had to get my dissertation off the shelf to see what was in it,” he said. “Once I read it, I started thinking about how I could explain the information through movement.”

The dance depicted in the video is based on LiCata’s study, “Resolving Pathways of Functional Coupling in Human Hemoglobin Using Quantitative Low Temperature Isoelectric Focusing of Asymmetric Mutant Hybrids.” The dance, set to Laurie Anderson’s “Born, Never Asked,” features two boy-girl pairs dressed in coordinating goggles and gloves. The pairs represent hemoglobin, a four-subunit protein that binds and moves oxygen. Throughout the routine, the individual units move about themselves depicting the process as they receive bound oxygen.

“There are three different parts to the study, so I wanted to feature three different types of movement,” he said. “Once I made that connection, the dance started going pretty quickly.”

It took LiCata about five days to outline the dance and nearly a week to get the entire group of six people together. However, once they all got in a room, the dance was completed in about two hours, after four takes with the camera. Currently, LiCata’s video has approximately 45,000 views on YouTube.

“It’s really exciting,” he said. “It means I can dance a little. It was nice to see that we explained the study through movement in a creative way.”

There were four winners total, one for each of the categories: graduate student, post-doctoral, professor, and popular choice— which had 14,000 views by the contest deadline. The prize was a paid trip to the annual AAAS convention, where winners got a chance to see their research performed as a dance by professional dancers.

“The range of the winning videos is just amazing; they’re really varied,” he said. “The winners gave the choreographers their publication. It was obvious the choreographers used science as more of an inspiration and origin of the dance.”

The juxtaposition of a dance contest for scientists is what makes this contest unique, although maybe not for LiCata, who has been in a few cabarets. LiCata found out about the contest through a friend, Roald Hoffman. Hoffman, a Nobel Prize winner and chemistry professor at Cornell University, runs a popular monthly cabaret at the Cornelia Street Café in New York City’s Greenwich Village. The piece, “Entertaining Science,” is similar to the dance contest in that it combines art and science.

Next fall, LiCata will teach a new course on science in theatre and movies.

Holly Ann Phillips | Writer | Office of Communications & University Relations
March 2009