Dancing in the lab

Students to use interpretive dance to relay scientific concepts in biology competition

Devon Ryan
Image by: Colin Tomchick
Devon Ryan

Dance and biology are unlikely partners, but one student is hoping the combination will give his group an edge at an annual science competition.

Kevin Chen, ArtSci ’13, created SynthetiQ Experimental Dance, a group that aims to explain the science behind a Queen’s Genetically Engineered Machine Team (QGEM) project.

The idea is based off one put forward by science writer and Harvard-based researcher John Bohannon.

He founded the Dance Your Ph.D contest in 2008, which involves Ph.D students interpreting their thesis through dance.

Last year, Queen’s biologist Emma Ware won the contest in the social sciences category.

A 2011 TEDx video depicted Bohannon and a troupe of dancers explaining a scientific concept through dance. This inspired Chen to adapt the idea for his own uses at Queen’s.

“I watched the video and I thought it was so, so cool,” Chen, ArtSci ’13, said.

Chen is a member of the KinetiQ Dance Crew and the team manager of QGEM, a group that participates in a yearly undergraduate synthetic biology competition.

The competition involves building and operating their own biological systems using pre-assigned biological parts. Last year, their presentation was delivered via PowerPoint. At this year’s International Genetically Engineered Machines Competition in Pittsburgh, the SynthetiQ team will use dance to explain “concepts associated with synthetic biology” and their own research, according to the QGEM website.

After watching Bohannon’s talk, which was filmed in Nov. 2011 and focuses specifically on using dance to explain biology, Chen got the idea to combine his two passions.

“I was like ‘Hey wait a second, I have this amazing group of researchers going to this conference to present everything and this whole dance thing fits perfectly with our project!’”

“Typically teams use animation or 3D stuff,” he said. “It’s a unique aspect to our team so we’re definitely going to be one of the teams to see.”

Chen said he hopes to take the SynthetiQ team to wider horizons in the future beyond their partnership with QGEM.

“We could dance political or economic concepts. We could even coordinate with professors to see what they’ll be teaching,” he said.

Now that the Queen’s team has their choreographers for the competition, they’re finishing up their recruitment of dancers and expect to bring about eight in total.

The dance will be performed as a speaker delivers information over a maximum 20-minute period. Contemporary dancer Devon Ryan is one of the choreographers for the competition piece and he said it was a happy coincidence that the group was started this year.

“I went through a small Ted talk obsession in the summer and I saw that one talk and I really loved it,” Ryan, Sci ’13, said. “I was really inspired. As soon as I heard about the research competition, I was excited to try out this dance style.”



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