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Dance your PhD

LMU PhD student wins Science dance contest

München, 11/26/2015

LMU doctoral student Jyaysi Desai, a member of Professor Hans-Joachim Anders’ research group at the LMU Munich university hospital has taken the chemistry prize and the audience prize at the “Dance your Ph.D.” competition organized by the leading American journal Science.

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Question: What does it take to get the complex role of granulocyte neutrophils in the workings of the immune system across to a lay audience? Answer: Masks, garbage bags, wool, shashlik skewers, painted cardboard – and some good dancers. LMU PhD student Jyaysi Desai from India took on the task, and her choreographed interpretation of granulocyte interactions so impressed both judges and audience at the “Dance your Ph.D.” contest organized by the American journal Science that she took home two prizes. Not only did she win the award in the Chemistry category, her presentation was rated best in the contest by the audience.

The title of Desai’s doctoral thesis is “Molecular Mechanisms Involved in Neutrophil Extracellular Trap (NET) Formation”. Neutrophils are white blood cells that patrol the circulation on the lookout for invasive pathogens, which they thwart using a number of mechanisms. One of these is the production of networks of chromatin fibers consisting of a complex of long DNA molecules coated with proteins, in which pathogens can be trapped and immobilized, and subsequently digested. In the video she submitted for the contest, she uses dance to depict this process of ‘NETosis’, as well as the other tricks that neutrophils utilize to capture and eliminate invasive micro-organisms. Her choreography also impressively illustrates what can happen when these tricks are turned against host tissues, as in the case of autoimmune diseases.

In her leisure time, Jyaysi Desai is an active member of the international dance troupe “D4Dance Germany” in Munich. Nevertheless, finding a way, together with her colleagues in the troupe, to bridge the divide between art and science and present the essence of her research as a dance performance set against the backdrop of the arcades in Munich’s Hofgarten was a huge challenge. A friend of hers supplied the choreography, and her violin teacher and a band of Indian musicians provided the musical accompaniment. “I made the costumes myself, with the help of my friend Ashutosh Gandhi – because, of course, we wanted to keep the costs down,” Desai explains. Only the Jason masks worn by the dancers representing the neutrophils were obtained from a commercial source. “We were in luck, because Halloween was just coming up!” she adds, with a laugh. The masks were chosen to suggest an atmosphere of threat, as the neutrophils are depicted as an army advancing to confront and defeat an invading enemy.

Desai intends to take up medical journalism when she has completed her thesis, and she fervently believes that it is tremendously important to communicate research findings to the general public in a comprehensible way. “The taxpayers who provide the financial resources that make our research possible have a right to be informed about what we discover,” she says. Her success at the Science competition brought her 500 euros in prize money. It is the first time that an entry from Germany has received an award at the annual competition.