Meet the winners of the 2024 Dance Your PhD Contest

Weliton Menário Costa of the Australian National University won the 2024 Dance Your PhD contest with “Kangaroo Time.”

We’ve been following the annual Dance Your PhD contest for several years now, delighting in the many creative approaches researchers have devised to adapt their doctoral theses into movement—from “nano-sponge” materials and superconductivity to the physics of atmospheric molecular clusters and the science of COVID-19. This year’s winner is Weliton Menário Costa of the Australian National University for his thesis “Personality, Social Environment, and Maternal-level Effects: Insights from a Wild Kangaroo Population.” His video entry, “Kangaroo Time,” is having a bit of a viral moment, charming viewers with its catchy beat and colorful, quirky mix of dance styles and personalities—both human and kangaroo.

As we reported previously, the Dance Your PhD contest was established in 2008 by science journalist John Bohannon. It was previously sponsored by Science magazine and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and is now sponsored by the AI company Primer, where Bohannon is the director of science. Bohannon told Slate in 2011 that he came up with the idea while trying to figure out how to get a group of stressed-out PhD students in the middle of defending their theses to let off a little steam. So he put together a dance party at Austria’s Institute of Molecular Biotechnology, including a contest for whichever candidate could best explain their thesis topics with interpretive dance.

The contest was such a hit that Bohannon started getting emails asking when the next would be—and Dance Your PhD has continued ever since. It’s now in its 16th year. There are four broad categories: physics, chemistry, biology, and social science, with a fairly liberal interpretation of what topics fall under each. All category winners receive $750, while Costa, as the overall champion, will receive an additional $2,000.

A native of Brazil, Costa earned a PhD in ecology from ANU in 2021 after spending several years studying eastern gray kangaroos, using a remote-controlled car to determine their distinct personalities. For example, some were bold and would approach the car out of curiosity; others were shyer and would avoid the car. Among his chief findings: Kangaroos like to socialize in groups but prefer smaller social circles. Kangaroo personalities emerge early, just like in humans, with mothers, offspring, and siblings often having similar personalities. But their personalities are also somewhat flexible; kangaroos will adjust their behavior based on social cues from the kangaroos around them.

When it came time to translate his research into movement, Costa decided to represent the rich diversity of kangaroo behavior with an equally diverse collection of dancers and dance styles: classical ballet, Brazilian funk, and urban styles, to name a few. Everyone was free to improvise their moves, with the only instruction being to mingle with others and slowly unify as a group. Costa joined in, adapting his dance style throughout to match other dancers, thus mimicking how kangaroos adapt their personalities to fit into a group. There’s even a behind-the-scenes video, which you can watch here.

“There was a sense of surprise and delight in it,” visual artist Alexa Meade, one of the content judges, told Science about why they selected Costa’s entry. “You could tell they were having fun through the process, that it wasn’t this labored, stressful experience.”

Costa is the first ANU researcher to win the contest and only the fourth Australian. “I think it not only shows the incredible might of the research conducted here in Australia but also how creative we are as a nation. Even us scientists,” Costa said of his win. “One of the main messages I wanted to convey through this piece of work is that differences lead to diversity, and this is evident throughout the entire video. It’s evident with the different dancers that herald from various cultures and backgrounds.” Costa is pursuing music as “Dr. WELI,” and “Kangaroo Time” is one of four songs on his debut EP, Yours Academically, Dr. WELI. But he’ll still be working at ANU as a visiting fellow until early 2025.

Check out the winners of the chemistry, physics, and biology categories on the next page.

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