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Dancing to academic victory

25 November 2015
PhD candidate pirouettes into the history books

Pearl Lee has won the biology category of the 2015 Dance your PhD competition with an interpretive dance on tropoelastin.

University of Sydney student Pearl Lee has krumped, leapt and twirled her way to victory in the 2015 Dance your PhD competition.

Pearl’s interpretive dance about cellular interactions with tropoelastin took out the biology category of the international competition, which challenges academics around the world to explain their PhD research in the most jargon-free medium of all: dance.

Together with her dancers – all University of Sydney students – Pearl outclassed 32 entrants from multiple countries to take out the prize, now in its eighth year.

“This concept of dancing to showcase my thesis interested me a lot because I was always passionate about two things: science and dance,” said Pearl, who is part of Anthony Weiss’ laboratory in the Charles Perkins Centre and Faculty of Science.

Pearl Lee and her dancers

“My thesis is on cellular interactions with tropoelastin, where tropoelastin is an elastic, dynamic molecule that assembles to form elastic fibres. This project captivated my interest as elastin is responsible for the elasticity in tissues such a skin and arteries. The degradation of this protein leads to the loss of elasticity in these tissues, contributing to the physical signs of aging.

“During my PhD I found that integrins, which are cell surface receptors, interact with a central part of the tropoelastin molecule. Understanding the cell adhesion activity of tropoelastin gives improved insight into the physiological and pathological cell responses to this protein. An adhesive site could also be a potential application for wound healing, another major area of research in my lab.

“As my research progressed into a publication, I had the confidence to start thinking about ways to portray my research through dance.”

Pearl drew inspiration from her membership of MADSOC, the University of Sydney Union’s Movement and Dance Society. While watching a piece choreographed by her friend, Pearl began to see the dancers in the piece as molecules, and the choreography as the interaction between tropolastin and integrins.

“The creative process of making this video was exciting and stimulating,” Pearl said.

“I enjoyed every moment of it.”

Along with the eternal glory of becoming academic dancing royalty, Pearl has won US$500.