By Brigid Gorry-Hines 11F
As someone who enjoys dancing and often works with professional dancers, John Bohannon 96S has always been fascinated with the dedication it requires—both physically and cognitively.
This inspired him to create the annual international “Dance Your PhD” contest, which asks participants to choreograph and take videos of dances about their scientific PhDs.
Bohannon says the idea for the contest initially started as “a joke … a fun thing people do at parties,” so he was surprised by the response. Submissions included complex and entertaining dances, in which contestants’ friends, families, and lab partners joined together to create the final results. “For some people, this is their first creative performance experience,” Bohannon says. He was glad to see people come up with such intricate dances, which he describes as “weird, beautiful, and often funny.”
Due to the media attention the contest received, Bohannon was invited to speak at TEDxBrussels in November 2011—where, with the assistance of dance company Black Label Movement, he performed a piece about replacing PowerPoint presentations with live dancers to help explain and illustrate scientific subjects.
In addition, Bohannon has done several scientific studies. Most recently, he wrote a fake research paper about the cancer-curing properties of lichen, which he submitted to more than 300 fee-charging, open-access scientific journals. More than 60 percent of the journals accepted the paper, despite its glaring flaws—often doing no peer review at all. Bohannon started this project after an African scientist complained to him about an unpleasant experience with submitting her research paper to such a journal. With his study, Bohannon hoped to reveal which of these open-access journals are doing legitimate peer reviews, and which are taking advantage of researchers. As a result of his public report on the study, many of the guilty journals have been shut down.
Bohannon transferred into Hampshire College his junior year, and started by studying biochemistry. His endeavors included testing for potential new drugs extracted from bacteria and fungi from deep caves. His Division III project involved tracking drug resistance in bacteria from cargo ships. He also studied aikido, which inspired an interest in dance and movement. After graduating, Bohannon continued his research in a lab at UMass Amherst, and eventually received a PhD in molecular biology from Oxford University.
Bohannon is currently based at Harvard University. He has written for numerous publications including Science, Discover, and Wired. He is working on a dance about dog evolution, commissioned by Purina Pet Food.
Photo: John Bohannon and Black Label Movement