Dancing complex Carleton research

Maureen McKeague and some of her fellow lab students put together a fun, clever video using dance to describe their research. (Video Photo)

Want to know what Maureen McKeague does for a living? There’s not much point in asking her.

The chemistry PhD candidate’s area of research is so specific and complex, describing it to someone who hasn’t spent years learning about DNA is almost an impossible chore.

That’s why McKeague tried out a different medium: interpretive dance.

As part of a Dance Your PhD contest in Science Magazine, McKeague and some of her fellow lab students put together a fun, clever video using dance to describe how nucleic acids called aptamers can bind with specific molecules to help detect heart disease, Alzheimer’s and birth defects.

Aptamers are small strands of DNA that identify and bind to targeted molecules.

“It’s certainly a great way to reach a wide range of people,” says McKeague, adding that, all-joking-aside, interpretive dance is actually a pretty suitable medium for describing things at a molecular level.

The video features McKeague and her lab partners interlocking arms, jumping and dancing in synchronized movements to represent the way aptamers are selected.

The result is both hilarious and informative, making the dance entirely enjoyable without sacrificing or dumbing down any of the actual science.

“Our lab decided to do it for fun but we did want to make sure that it was accurate,” she says.

The group has already won $500 for the submission and have made it the semi-finals in the competition. The winner will be decided at the Imagine Science Film Festival in New York on Oct. 19.

But even more meaningful for the academically-driven Carleton student, the dance has caught the attention of one of the judges, Richard Losick, a professor at Harvard, who wants to show it in his molecular biology class.

“My motivation, since I’m not an actual dancer, is to use it educationally,” says McKeague. “So this is great.

“When you’re teaching actual chemistry students, you’d have to teach outside of the video,” she says, adding that it’s by no means comprehensive but “correct in the way it’s presented.

“It’s a good opening for different subjects.”

To watch the Carleton team’s video go to: http://vimeo.com/14528924

To watch the contest submissions and vote for your favourite, visit: http://news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow/2010/09/dance-your-phd-finalists-announce.html

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Daniel Reid

By Daniel Reid

Whether it’s scientific breakthroughs, political manoeuvres or loaded technical jargon, Daniel Reid loves to untangle complex ideas to make them accessible to everyone. He is currently an editor at @newsrooms and is a former web editor at @CTVNews and homepage editor at @TheLoopCA. You can argue with him on Twitter at @ahatrack.

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