Kangaroo fun takes a leap in the ‘Dance Your PhD’ competition

A performance that celebrates diversity among social animals is the overall winner of the 2024 Dance Your PhD competition, which the author has likened to winning Eurovision. It could also be the perfect way to launch a career as a singer/songwriter/science communicator.

Since its inception 16 years ago, Dance Your PhD has become a way for hundreds of scientists to educate the world about their work in a format that reaches many who would normally tune out. The effort is great and the financial reward small – but some past participants have reported that the discipline of explaining their work through interpretive dance has helped the writing process.

Dr. Weliton Menário Costa, on the other hand, completed his dissertation in 2021. He told IFLScience that he has only now had time to pursue his other passions in music and dance, and the competition provided a bridge. Menário Costa, who goes by the stage name WELI, investigated the way wild gray kangaroos – who live in large groups called mobs – interact with each other and how their social environment and childhood shape their personalities.

Coming from Brazil, kangaroos were not the first thing Menário Costa thought to study, but as he told IFLScience; “I have always loved social animals.” After studying goats, whose sociability fascinated him, Costa applied to PhD subjects on social mammals around the world, eventually landing at the Australian National University to participate in a long-term study of a group of eastern gray kangaroos.

Menário Costa drove a miniature remote-controlled car into the crowd and monitored the kangaroos’ reactions under different conditions, learning their personalities. “Kangaroos are very socially aware and will adapt their behavior based on cues from other animals,” he said in a statement.

Kangaroos do not discriminate based on sexual preference and gender identity

Kangaroos do not discriminate based on sexuality and gender identity. WELI wanted to celebrate the diversity in the video.

Image credit: Nic Vevers/ANU

“I’m interested in how the social environment shapes you,” Costa told IFLScience. “It comes from being queer in a conservative place. I discovered that this doesn’t just happen to people.”

For someone who is building a musical career and soon to release his first EP, a Dance Your PhD entry was a natural choice, and kangaroos made it easy – some even look like they’re participating. Koalas may not have given Costa the social aspect he was looking for, and would certainly have been less danceable if he had ended up on one anyway. Nevertheless he said; “I still would have tried because I have a passion” for dance and communicating his work.

Between former housemates and dance partners, Costa had plenty of people who wanted to participate. However, given the importance of diversity as a topic, he decided to go further and seek out people from many backgrounds and styles to ensure the video emphasized the point of science.

“One of the main messages I wanted to convey with this work is that differences lead to diversity, and this is clearly visible throughout the video. This is clearly visible in the different dancers who are a harbinger of different cultures and backgrounds,” says Menário Costa.

He encouraged dancers from different backgrounds to mingle like kangaroos and move from individuals to a united crowd.

Menário Costa has been working as a research officer since graduating, but will now delve into the music world full-time for a while and hopes that the victory will attract people to his channels.

The competition has winners in four categories, who will now receive $750 each thanks to sponsorship by AI company SandboxAQ. One of these will be the overall winner, increasing the prize money by $2,000. Considering the effort it takes to film these works of art, you should do it for love, not for money – or, in rare cases, for fame.

The judges say they are not just looking for good dancing, but also a clear connection to the science being explained.

Costa has entered his work in the social sciences category, rather than the biology category. Coincidentally, the biology winner covered some of the same ground, using more classical ballet to explore how early life experiences, such as violence and neglect, influence children’s growth through epigenetics.

In further evidence of how blurry the categories can be, neural regeneration and the role of the Circadian Clock won the chemistry prize.

Finally, the physics prize went to an exquisitely choreographed exploration of river bank erosion.

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