Chemistry alum wins scientific dance competition
For anyone who has ever struggled to follow a postgraduate’s description of their Ph.D. thesis, the American Association for the Advancement of Science created a solution: the “Dance Your Ph.D.” video contest. The 15-year-old competition invites scientists of any discipline to explain their Ph.D. thesis through interpretative dance. For flow artist and chemist Checkers Marshall (Chemistry, ’16), it was a match made in nerd heaven.
“Every year, I watch the finalist videos and think how cool it is to learn about [other scientists’] work through dancing,” Marshall said. “Last June, I was ramping down on research and writing my thesis, which is pretty boring, so it seemed like a good time to work on a crazy, creative project.”
Presented by Science and sponsored by artificial intelligence company Primer, “Dance Your Ph.D.” judges sifted through 28 submissions from 12 different countries to determine the finalists. They picked winners in four categories (biology, chemistry, physics, and social sciences) and an overall winner. Marshall received $750 for their win in the chemistry category and the $2,000 grand prize for their overall standing.
While Marshall neared the finish line for defending their thesis, “Nanoparticles of Metal-Organic Frameworks: A General Synthetic Method and Size-Dependent Properties,” at the University of Oregon, they crafted 20 blue papier-mâché balloons and other props for the five-minute video. The balloons represented ions, while yellow hand fans served as electrons moving around in crystalline materials. To symbolize electron exchanges between metal ions, Marshall showed off their fancy hand fan skills they’ve acquired over the last decade as a flow artist, which involves dancing while holding a prop. The award-winning video depicted how Marshall’s Ph.D. work aimed to make these materials smaller and thus more effective for a variety of applications, from water filtration to nerve agent detoxification, according to Science.
Marshall, who grew up in Denver, has gravitated toward hands-on work their entire life, from high school shop classes to flow art parties and lab-type sciences in college. They moved to Durango in 2012, impressed by the tight-knit community and academic programs.
“The Chemistry Department had an astonishing amount of resources for such a small school,” Marshall said. “The labs have everything you need to get some good research done. At a larger school, you may have fancier instruments but you’re not working directly with faculty. I appreciated the small class sizes and professors with open-door policies. I could ask them questions at any time.”
During the first semester of their first year, Checkers was asked by Aimee Morris, associate professor of Chemistry, to fill the role of teacher’s assistant.
“[Morris] said, ‘Hey, you’re a promising student. Do you want to TA this class next term?’ That little nugget of belief made a huge difference in my studies and confidence,” Marshall said.
Marshall also took creative writing and media courses and enjoyed access to the Ballantine Media Center’s video production equipment and green screen room.
"I’ve never won anything like this in my life. It’s my moment of internet nerd fame. I truly believe that my education and experiences at the Fort were foundational in the way that I grew into the science communicator I am today."
— Checkers Marshall
“Being at a liberal arts school allowed me to explore my creative side and helped so much when I started my Ph.D.,” they said. “I felt so much more well-rounded than a lot of my colleagues. One of the first classes in my Ph.D program was focused on giving a good science presentation. Because of FLC, I can speak in front of a group and find the best color schemes for a presentation; all those soft skills really helped down the line.”
During their four years in Durango, Marshall frequented the former UniTEA House on College Drive, writing and performing slam poetry. They credit those weekly gatherings with their penchant for transforming their 181-page Ph.D. thesis into a one-page rap outfitted with a customized sick beat.
“I tried really hard to send a clear message and keep the scientific symbolism consistent,” Marshall said.
Friends provided music production equipment and expertise, on-set talent during the filming, prop support, and an overtly Pacific Northwest-lush backyard for the stage. After months of preparation, the video came together over a weekend of filming in August.
Marshall defended their Ph.D. in December 2022 before moving to Vancouver, British Columbia, to work at a carbon capture startup as a material synthesis research and development chemist. They submitted the “Dance Your Ph.D.” entry in January 2023. Three weeks later, Marshall was driving across the U.S.-Canada border when an email alerted them of a first-place overall finish.
“There was a ding on my phone and I just kind of cried and screamed a little,” they said. “When I rolled up to the window and handed over my passport, I was so giddy.”
From start to finish for the seven-months-long project, Marshall guesses they dropped $300 on supplies and video production. They plan to use the surplus winnings to help supplement the costs of moving to another country.
“I’ve never won anything like this in my life. It’s my moment of internet nerd fame,” Marshall said. “I truly believe that my education and experiences at the Fort were foundational in the way that I grew into the science communicator I am today.”
To view Marshall’s winning video and discover more about the “Dance Your Ph.D.” competition, visit science.org. To learn more about FLC’s Chemistry & Biochemistry Department, click here.