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No Words At All: Explaining Heart Prosthetics With Tap and Salsa

Jacob Brubert is no stranger to using interpretive dance to explain himself.

Brubert and his friends would sometimes use dance to describe what they had done that day, he said. This year, he used dance to demonstrate something far more ambitious than a day’s work: his Ph.D. thesis. Brubert’s effort translated into the top prize at this year’s Dance Your Ph.D. contest – Science’s annual call to action for researchers to translate their Ph.D. thesis into a dance.

Brubert, who completed his Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology, first learned about the contest from contest founder and Science contributor John Bohannon’s 2011 TED Talk. Since then, “It had always been in the back of my mind,” Brubert said.

He was encouraged by friends who knew he danced salsa and had spent several years taking tap classes as a child.

Both forms of dance make an appearance in his video, entitled “A polymeric prosthetic heart valve” that details two different prosthetic approaches to replace diseased heart valves. One type of valve, made from animal tissue and represented in the video by a pair of salsa dancers in pig and cow costumes, lacks durability. Another valve, this one mechanical and represented by a pair of tap dancers, interacts poorly with blood. The dancers demonstrate the effectiveness of the second valve by pushing the hula-hooping “blood” into a swimming pool.

Brubert’s video depicts a better approach: a prosthetic heart valve made from a flexible polymer that is durable and compatible with blood. Brubert and his fellow dancers move their way through the creation of this type of valve.

The video’s last scene vividly demonstrates the trial and error inherent to scientific research. Even though the polymeric valve is tolerated by blood and is durable, it still fails in the end, as the dancers representing the valve slowly crumble to the ground, and the biomedical engineer falls to his knees.

After completing his Ph.D., Brubert continued working on the project as a postdoctoral researcher. Brubert is now enrolled in medical school, but his colleagues are continuing to work toward improving the durability of the polymeric prosthetic heart valve.

“It’s not yet at the stage where it can go into a human,” Brubert said of the valve, “but it’s much, much closer than it was.”

While Brubert mostly choreographed the dance ahead of time — “whatever I dreamt up beforehand seemed to be possible,” he said — he also embraced the unexpected while creating the video. He selected roles for his fellow dancers that played to their talents, incorporating, for instance, one dancer’s juggling abilities. “That definitely went on his CV, making the cast for the dance,” Brubert joked. The video also included spontaneous moments, like the salsa-dancing cow who dances “the worm.” “Nobody had ever seen him do that before,” Brubert said.

Stepping away from work for a few hours to choreograph and perform the dance and edit the final video is a great way to unblock your head and get a new perspective on your research, Brubert said. “It’s a great way to put a completely different spin on your thesis,” he said.

Plus, he added, “every time we went out, we had so much fun.”

The contest is not just about blowing off steam, though. Dance Your Ph.D. can serve as a novel tool for communicating complex scientific research topics to the public.

“The experiment is not the end of the story, because you still have to transmit that knowledge to other people,” said Bohannon in the TED Talk that first inspired Brubert. “Dance really can make science easy to understand.”

“There have been lots of people who have gone, ‘Ah, so that’s actually what you do,’” Brubert said. “For many people, I think it allowed them to see the overall picture.”

Brubert, as the contest’s overall winner, earned $1,000 and a trip to the AAAS Annual Meeting in Boston in February. Other award prizes, worth $500 each, were also presented to winners in four categories: Carla Brown at the University of Glasgow won in the biology category with “Antibiotic Apocalypse.” Margaret Danilovich at Northwestern University captured the social sciences category with “Strong for Life,” which displays ways for older adults to improve and involve themselves in more physical activity. Evgeny Sogorin of the Institute of Protein Research in Moscow and his dancing ribosomes won in the chemistry category and the People’s Choice Award went to Emmanuelle Alaluf at the Free University of Brussels for a video on the use of an enzyme to improve anti-tumor immune response.

“If you’re trying to give someone the big picture of a complex idea, to really capture its essence, the fewer words you use, the better,” said Bohannon in his TED Talk. “In fact, the ideal might be to use no words at all.”


Andrea Korte