Student wins international contest with Dance Your PhD video

When Pramodh Senarath Yapa, a physics PhD student at the University of Alberta, saw the email telling him he’d won an international contest, he thought it was spam.

Yapa won the 11th annual Dance Your PhD contest, sponsored by Science Magazine and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The contest was started by John Bohannon, a former writer for Science Magazine and current science director of Primer, an AI company, as a way for scientists to share their research in a way that didn’t include scientific jargon.

To be considered, candidates must submit a video that includes their research expressed through dance. The contest received about 50 submissions from around the world, which are then judged by scientists and professional dancers.

Participating in the contest has been a long-time dream, Yapa said. Five years ago, he started thinking about how he would put his submission together when he started his master’s degree at the University of Victoria. For two years, when lyrics would pop into his head to describe his research, he would add them to a note on his phone to use in his video.

All of that planning paid off, and Yapa found out he won the competition in early February. However, he thought it was spam because of the subject line: “You have won.” But when he read it and found out he had won the contest he was in shock.

“I’ve been thinking about doing this for years now, so to find out I won was just surreal,” he said.

The video, “Superconductivity: The Musical!” came together in six weeks, Yapa said. He would wake up and write the music for an hour and a half every morning. Being involved in the swing dancing community in Victoria, when the time came to do the dancing part of the video, he put out a call to his friends to take part. They filmed the video in one day last year.

“It came together really quickly, and it was super fun to make,” he added.

Yapa’s research in the video focused on superconductivity, and how this can be used in a quantum computer. Where regular computers use the simple flow or absence of current to express 1s and 0s, quantum computers use superconductors. These superconductors are rings, and the flow of current, clockwise or counterclockwise, indicates the binary code.

However, the current can flow both ways, expressing 1s and 0s at the same time. When this happens, the processing speed increases as instead of having to express each number individually, which takes time and energy, it can explore different possibilities at the same time through parallel processing.

Yapa’s research focused on how to get the current to flow both ways in the rings, which are made of a superconducting material. By putting a magnetic field through the ring, the accuracy of the information being processed can be controlled.

The only problem is that other magnetic fields can cause errors in the computation, and superconductors have dirt in them that give off those fields. Yapa’s focus, he said, was looking at how much of a magnetic field this dirt, represented by punks in the video, is giving off and how it was affecting the reliability of the computations.

The hardest part of translating his research into interpretive dance, he said, was deciding what parts of his research to include, what to cut, as well as the organizational details. The issue of jargon in science is something Yapa says even he faces sometimes.

“When it affects even someone like me who’s deeply entrenched in academia, I can see how people who don’t really eat, breath and sleep physics will see all these Greek letters and horrible equations and get completely turned off,” he said.

However, it was easier because he had been thinking about it for so long.

“When it came time to make [the video], the architecture was built in my mind, so it’s just fleshing out the details, so in that way, it was super easy,” he said.

When he does outreach, he added, he tries to leave the equations at home and focus more on tangible ideas and lean on experiences in real life. He stressed the importance of using all modes of communication.

“I think, as researchers, we need to understand the audiences, and jargon has its place, but we need to understand when it’s appropriate to use it,” he said.

Kate Turner

Kate Turner is a first-year native studies student and The Gateway’s Winter 2019 Staff Reporter. She is passionate about human rights and is a lover of chocolate, languages, and public transit systems. When she's not writing, she can be found strategizing Monopoly moves and reading historical fiction.

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