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Science turned into dance video makes finals

30 October 2014

Claudia Poloni and Matea Vlatkovic are in the finals of the “Dance your PhD competition”. They turned Claudia’s PhD project into a dance that was performed by members of the Stratingh Institute of Chemistry.

Claudia Poloni
Claudia Poloni

‘It was Matea’s idea’, says Claudia. ‘She is really into teaching and explaining science to other people.’ Matea (who is currently in China so Claudia has to do all the talking) noticed the ‘Dance your PhD’ competition in Science magazine. The competition, which started in 2010, is organized by Gonzo Labs, a meeting place of science and arts. Science Magazine (AAAS) is one of the sponsors. The idea is simple: design a choreography that expresses your research project, get some dancers and make a video.

Claudia’s project showed most promise for a dance, so the two PhD students decided to work on the ‘integration of molecular motors into peptides’. More on that later! ‘ They met every Sunday, starting last November, and designed the dance. ‘Matea is a good Salsa dancer, I’ve done a Salsa course myself, but we’re not exactly professionals. However, we wanted a simple dance that anyone could join in with .’

When the dance took shape, they got some colleagues on board. ‘We have a ‘girls group’ at the Stratingh Institute that meets regularly. They got in on the project.’ A camerawomen and other support crew were also found. And a few guys as well.

The dance expresses first how molecular motors are made. These are the hallmark of the Feringa group to which both Claudia and Matea belong. They then show how the motors work, being driven by both heat and light. ‘We wanted to do some promotion of the Netherlands, so this scene was shot at the windmill near Paterswolde.’ Here, the girls dance in white and pink dresses. ‘We made them from lab coats.’ Pink lab coats? ‘Well, we dyed them.’ Group leader Ben Feringa was fine with that, and supports the project, Claudia adds.

Matea Vlatkovic
Matea Vlatkovic

In the third section, the integration of the molecular motor into a peptide is shown. This takes place on the green between the Bernoulliborg and Linnaeusborg. The final scenes were shot in August. Then, the clip was edited and submitted.

A total of 21 movies were submitted, and twelve were selected for the Finals . The dance by Matea and Claudia is one of the finalist, so now they have chance to win the $500 prize in Chemistry and the overall prize, which is another $500 plus a trip to a screening at Stanford University.

‘If we win, we’ll have a really big party for everyone involved’, says Claudia. ‘And if we lose, we’ll still have party. It was such fun to do!’ She learned quite a lot about science communication over the last few months. ‘Many people have watched the video. I now know how difficult it is to really explain what it is I’m doing.’

The jury will announce the winners on Monday 3 November. Until then, everyone can see the finalists and vote for their favorite dance at the Science Magazine website . Jenna Kloosterman, who did some of her PhD work at SRON in Groningen, is finalist in the category Physics.

On 3 November, it turned out Matea and Claudia didn't win. But getting to the finals was almost as good!

Still from the video
Still from the video

About the molecular motors

University of Groningen Chemistry professor Ben Feringa was the first to design a working light-driven molecular motor. Recently he even presented a molecular car. His group is working on studying and perfecting these motors, but also on finding new ways of using them.

In her PhD project, Claudia Poloni tries to incorporate a motor into a peptide. This should allow her to switch the peptide into different structures, a bit like this switchable antibiotic . ‘The motor I designed, looks very much like an amino acid, and amino acids are the building blocks of peptides and proteins. Using synthetic methods, we can therefore incorporate it.’

The experiment shown in the dance is done with a peptide that can bind to DNA through something called a ‘zinc finger’. ‘In one configuration, the protein will bind to zinc, and thereby to DNA, but not in the other. Using the motor, we can switch the peptide between these states.’ Claudia has put this part in her dance although, to be honest, she has not yet proven beyond doubt that it works. But she still has a few months on the project to make her dance come true.

Last modified:29 September 2017 12.24 p.m.
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