So you think you can dance your dissertation?

If it’s difficult to explain your research to friends, family and the world at large — why not dance it?

Graduate students Christopher Knowlton and Carrie Seltzer decided to try, and ended up among 12 finalists for the international Dance Your Ph.D. competition sponsored by Science magazine.

“It was really fun and a great challenge,” says Seltzer, a Ph.D. candidate in biological sciences who had no previous dance experience.

For Knowlton, a Ph.D. candidate in bioengineering who’s an experienced dancer and choreographer, it was a chance to blend art and science.

“I think people need to understand the importance of arts education,” he says.

When Seltzer first heard about the contest several years ago, she had no idea how she could use dance to interpret her dissertation in biology, “Seed dispersal and regeneration in a Tanzanian rain forest.”

Then she saw an entry last year for a dissertation in ecology and thought, “I can do this!”

She brainstormed with fellow biology students, friends and family and enlisted the help of two colleagues in her department who have dance backgrounds. The dancers in the video are undergraduates from Earlham College, where Seltzer earned her undergraduate degree in biology.

“There was a lot of planning involved,” says Seltzer, whose adviser is professor Henry Howe.

Dance is an important part of life for Knowlton, who was awarded an Avery Brundage Scholarship this year, given to students who show excellence in academics and an amateur athletic pursuit.

In addition to his studies, Knowlton freelances as dancer and choreographer. Occasionally he meets up with friends who are also students and dancers “to jam out in an empty fitness center rec room,” he says.

His project, “Multiactivity wear testing of total knee replacements,” took three two-hour rehearsals before filming.

When working with dancers, “choreographing doesn’t mean creating every single movement and teaching it to your dancers. Contemporary choreographers almost always collaborate with their dancers,” he says.

Knowlton’s interest in dance and his undergraduate degree in engineering led him to bioengineering.

His adviser, Markus Wimmer, is an adjunct assistant professor in bioengineering at UIC and an associate professor in orthopedics at Rush University.

Although Seltzer and Knowlton’s entries were not grand prize winners in the contest, both say they enjoyed the experience.

“I put a lot of heart into it,” Knowlton says.

Seltzer encourages other students to give dancing their research a try.

“It’s the nerdiest thing I have ever done,” she says, adding, “everyone who writes a Ph.D. should dance it.”

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