Wednesday, June 23, 2010

So You Think Scientists and Engineers Can't Dance?

Marketing complex products and services to the general public is a huge challenge. Our firm specializes in it, and we struggle with trying to figure out how to connect science, health, education and engineering research and findings with the general public.

In many of these disciplines PR people take what they are given – edit it - and put it back out there in the same language it was handed to them in. That doesn’t help anyone else understand it.

So I thought this marketing story would be useful to everyone. It’s about a contest started by John Bohannon, the Gonzo Scientist working with AAAS. The point is to challenge graduate students and their professors to dance their PhDs.

PhDs can be endless documents that take exhaustive research, hours to explain and drive both the writer and his or her spouse (I lived through one fortunately, not mine) crazy. Marriages are destroyed over PhDs, friendships ruined, relationships with advisors can be either helpful or hostile. Earning a PhD is a long and painful process that few come out of unscathed.

PhDs start with a germ of an idea – in my ex-husband’s case the role of NGOs in international political negotiations – and watch it blossom around them. He wrote his thesis (Yes there are other kinds of sciences at MIT) at the beginning of the Internet, when the NGOs like Greenpeace, Save the Whales, and the World Wildlife Fund – were just figuring out how to use this new form of mass communication.

It took 900 pages and ten years to complete (including time out for getting a career and family started). The degree was worth it and the dissertation was thrown into a box in the attic where it remains today. A classmate destroyed his at a Burn Your PhD party. At 900 pages we weren’t burning anything.

I’m describing this process so you can understand just how hard it is for graduate students to transform their research into something that everyone can understand. In its third year, the Dance Your PhD contest lets graduate students and their professors create short videos that are representative of their PhD theses, acting and dancing them out for all to see. The winners get put up on YouTube, feted at the AAAS annual meeting and see their dance performed by a professional company.

As a marketer I love this idea – and so did the media. The first year, Dance Your PhD was on the network news, featured in the New York Times, on NPR and although it hasn’t happened yet – with a bit more pushing will probably end up viral. Call it what you want – Revenge of the Geeks, Geeks Gone Wild – it’s just plain smart marketing.

This type of effort to connect science with the rest of us in an art form we all can all appreciate is what informal science education is all about. From the thesis titles alone you could fall asleep – but the performances are inspirational. Here are few that really capture the spirit of the competition. You can find them on YouTube but the linking mess that is Blogger has stymied me once again. Just type in Dance Your PhD and the name of the submitter.

"Refitting repasts: a spatial exploration of food processing, cooking, sharing and disposal at the Dunefield Midden campsite, South Africa" (University of Oxford). A caveman like figure chases a deer across the stage in an interpretation of hunting and gathering. It’s set to the music of Herbie Hancock and created by Brian Stewart.

The role of Vitamin D in beta-cell function from graduate student, Sue Lynn Lau. An interpretive dance that takes you from Vitamin D production by the sun all the way through how it helps our bodies.

"The role of folate in epigenetic regulation of colon carcinogenesis.” PhD thesis of Lara Park at Tufts University, this one is performed by the Sarabande Repertory Dance Ensemble dance troupe and reminiscent of modern dance gone a bit wild.

All of the blogger links aren't working so if you want to enter go to Facebook - you can do it all through its Dance Your PhD page.

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