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Can soil enzymes dance?

No, they can’t, but a researcher who studies them can.  Charlotte Alster, a graduate Synchrostudent at Colorado State University (CSU) decided she would dance, or better yet, synchronize swim her research on soil enzymes.  Her routine is one of the finalists in the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) Dance Your PhD competition.  We asked Charlotte about her experience. Before you read on, vote for your favorite!

One of your PhD projects is on how soil enzymes respond to temperature, which seems hard to translate into a synchronized swimming routine.  Why did you decide to enter the competition?

Since moving to Colorado in 2012 to start my PhD, I have been very involved with the synchronized swimming (synchro) community, both as a competitor on the CSU synchro team and as a coach of a club team for kids here in Northern Colorado. After seeing the entries for Dance Your PhD last year I thought what a cool opportunity to combine my passions from two vastly different areas of my life, synchro and soil ecology, and be able to share my research with people in the synchro community as well as share synchro with people in the science community. But mostly I just thought it would be a lot of fun!

The central idea of your research is that at high temperature soil enzymes slow down before breaking apart. This message comes through well in the video, but to get there you must have had to distill a very nuanced and complicated idea to its core. What was most challenging?

Out of all of the aspects of creating this video, distilling the different components of my PhD work into a simple story was definitely the most challenging. It helped to go through multiple versions of the story with my lab mates as well as with non-science people to make sure I kept the message accurate, but still understandable to a broad audience. Once I figured out who all of the characters would be (microbes, enzymes, substrates, and temperature), putting together the choreography was relatively straightforward.

The video is a little over two minutes. What did you cut that you wished you could have left in? Did anyone get mad for getting cut out of the final video?

I actually did not cut out anything. Every second was choreographed and planned out before we did the filming. We had a two-hour rehearsal the day before the shoot to learn some of the sections and then three hours on the day of the shoot to film everything. I have several kids in my video, so I did have to cut a few of them from a couple scenes as we were filming when they weren’t picking up the choreography fast enough, but given the time constraints I think they understood. My video is also considerably shorter than all of the other entries out of necessity. Creating synchro routines can be a lot more challenging than other types of dance choreography because executing clean synchronization is more difficult to do upside-down in the water when you can’t see each other like you can on land. I kept the music short on purpose since I knew it would be a lot of work.

What has been the response so far?

So far so good! I feel like I have received almost equal enthusiasm from both the science and synchro worlds. Not sure it has gone viral enough for the trolls to hit yet.

Do you have any advise for a PhD student thinking of entering the contest next year?

Plan ahead and get help. Creating this Dance Your PhD entry was a huge production, so it definitely pays to be organized and solicit help when necessary. Between developing the storyline, choosing and getting permission for the music, creating choreography, locking down a location to film, ordering costumes, organizing the dancers, and actually doing the filming and editing, there was a lot to tackle that I originally hadn’t considered when starting this project. I was fortunate enough to have major help with both the choreography and filming/editing, which made the whole process feel a little less overwhelming. I would say most importantly though, don’t get so caught up in the details that you forget to have fun while you’re at it!

There you have it. Voting ends Thursday (November 19th) at 3 pm EST, so vote now!