How to Dance Your Dissertation: See the Winning Video in the 2014 “Dance Your PhD” Contest

We’ve seen how mod­ern dance can explain key con­cepts in sta­tis­tics (e.g. cor­re­la­tion and sam­pling error). So why could­n’t dance also illus­trate the con­clu­sions of a plant biol­o­gy doc­tor­al dis­ser­ta­tion?

Uma Nagen­dra, a grad­u­ate stu­dent at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Geor­gia, has just won the 2014 edi­tion of the “Dance Your Ph.D.” con­test. Spon­sored by Sci­ence and High­Wire Press, the con­test asks grad stu­dents to “explain their Ph.D. research in the most jar­gon-free medi­um of all: dance.” (More cri­te­ria can be found over at the con­test’s tips & tricks page.) Accord­ing to Sci­ence mag­a­zine, Nagen­dra likes to spend “a good deal of her [free] time hang­ing upside down from a trapeze doing cir­cus aeri­als.” It’s a cre­ative out­let for her. And it offers a good way, it turns out, to visu­al­ize the con­clu­sions of her dis­ser­ta­tion explor­ing “Plant-soil feed­backs after severe tor­na­do dam­age.”

The “Dance Your Ph.D.” con­test allows each con­tes­tant to sub­mit a video with a short piece of descrip­tive text. Here is what Nagen­dra wrote:

Many of the pat­terns we see in forests around the world are caused by the rela­tion­ships that plants have with organ­isms in the soil. Some very diverse forests can only sup­port as many dif­fer­ent tree species as they do because soil-borne dis­eases pre­vent any one species from tak­ing over. But what hap­pens when a tor­na­do comes along? Do the plants and soil organ­isms main­tain this diver­si­ty-pro­mot­ing rela­tion­ship?

My PhD research focus­es on how sev­er­al dif­fer­ent species of tree seedlings in the south­ern Appalachi­an moun­tains inter­act with soil organisms—and how tor­na­does might mix things up. I study many dif­fer­ent species. As an exam­ple, we can look at white pine (Pinus strobus), and the many pathogens that attack the roots of its seedlings.

The dance begins in an undis­turbed for­est. Because trees live for so long in one place, a mature pine tree accu­mu­lates a unique group of fun­gi around its roots—including pathogens that cause dis­eases in tree seedlings (in this case, Pythi­um and Rhi­zoc­to­nia). White pine seedlings that are very close to a mature tree are more like­ly to be attacked by these pathogens—causing stunt­ed growth, or even death. The far­ther away a seedling is from a mature tree, the less like­ly it is to get infect­ed. These dis­tant seedlings are more like­ly to sur­vive to matu­ri­ty. A pat­tern emerges where the mature pine trees are spaced far apart—leaving room for seedlings of oth­er species to grow, and cre­at­ing a diverse for­est.

In the mid­dle of the dance, we wit­ness the tornado—and how it changes the for­est envi­ron­ment. The mature pine tree dies, and the for­est floor is no longer shad­ed. The soil becomes hot­ter and dri­er. With­out the liv­ing mature tree as a host, spe­cial­ist pathogens are less active, and many die. Because of this, I am pre­dict­ing that plant-soil rela­tion­ships in recent­ly tor­na­do-dam­aged areas may be much weak­er. In the last part of the dance, seedlings close to the (killed) mature tree are no longer at greater risk for dis­ease; they grow and sur­vive the same as their more dis­tant sib­lings. The chang­ing plant-soil rela­tion­ships after dis­tur­bances might be one piece in the puz­zle of how diverse ecosys­tems change over time.

via Explore

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

Sta­tis­tics Explained Through Mod­ern Dance: A New Way of Teach­ing a Tough Sub­ject

The Illus­trat­ed Guide to a Ph.D.

Ser­i­al Entre­pre­neur Damon Horowitz Says “Quit Your Tech Job and Get a Ph.D. in the Human­i­ties”

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