Dancing with the Stars? Science version.


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Tonight, I’ll be heading out to the Vancouver Cafe Scientifique, where noted bee biologist, Dr. Mark Winston, will be giving a talk about science and dance (May 12th, 7:30pm at the Railway Club).

Now, although the linkage between dancing, science, and bees would be normally fairly straight forward, I’ve been told that tonight’s presentation would be more an exploration about dancing as an art form and as a way of creatively expressing science.

I’m pretty keen to check it out myself since my own lab does a fair bit of art + science endeavours (although admittedly, I’m a little niave when it comes to the whole dancing scene). Should be interesting in any event, and if you do end up checking it out yourself, do say hello (I’ll be the not-so-youthful chinese guy wearing a They Might Be Giants t-shirt).

Anyway, this dancing and science thing seems all too convergent for me, having recently come back from Louisiana where I had the good fortune to talk science literacy with a bunch of great Faculty at the LSU campus. Not the least of which was my friend Vince LiCata.

…Which is where hemoglobin comes in: Specifically this dance routine and the byline below:

Human hemoglobin, in your blood cells, displays precise changes in internal cooperativity in response to exactly how the first two oxygens bind to it.

This video depicts, in dance, the study: “Resolving Pathways of Functional Coupling in Human Hemoglobin Using Quantitative Low Temperature Isoelectric Focusing of Asymmetric Mutant Hybrids”

Hemoglobin is a 4-subunit protein (a tetramer) that binds and transports oxygen. Individual alpha-subunits and beta-subunits come together to form almost inseparable dimers (boy-girl pairs with matching eye-goggle and gloves in the dance). How dimer-1 interacts with dimer-2 in the whole protein, however, depends on the exact combination of bound oxygens (white balls). If one dimer gets 2 oxygens to itself, cooperativity is reduced and it does not interact well with the other dimer. If both dimers get at least 1 oxygen, they cooperate with each other, and usually bind 2 more oxygen molecules (for a total of 4). In normal hemoglobin, the two dimers are identical. Hemoglobin tetramers with two differing types of dimers are called “asymmetric mutant hybrids” (hence the different colored goggles and gloves on each “dance-mer”). “Low temperature isoelectric focusing” is a method that freezes (literally) and takes a snapshot of the dimer-dimer interactions at different times.

That’s Vince with the funky red glasses. It should also be noted that this video went on to win the 2009 AAAS Science Dance Contest (professor category).

Pretty interesting overall, and I believe part of the prize was the opportunity for Vince’s lab to work with a professional dance troop for the 2009 AAAS conference (although I can’t seem to find footage of that performance).

Now even though admittedly, modern dance and performance art pieces aren’t usually my thing, I love the idea of these types of projects, because they basically emphasize two things that I think are important.

1. That sometimes to bring science to the public, and because we have to be aware that different folk have different perspectives and different preferences, it’s not a bad thing to present science in otherwise unconventional ways.

2. That seeing a scientist do modern dance illustrates an important part of science culture – i.e. we come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and are interested in all sorts of things.

Anyway, with this in mind, I’m curious to ask if you know of any other faculty types who bridge the arts and science in interesting ways (maybe list below with their Department and Institution).

Would be great to hear of others – for example, it’s kind of how Vince (another McSweeney’s scribe and, I believe, the only scientist to have published something on Britney Spears in Nature).

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David (@ng_dave) is Faculty at the Michael Smith Labs. His writing has appeared in places such as McSweeney's, The Walrus, and boingboing.net. He plans on using Terry as another place to highlight the mostly science-y links he appreciates. In fact, if you liked this one, you might also like his main site generally - this can be found at popperfont.net.