Fruit fly on the wall view of your PhD

A Green Templeton PhD student has won $500 in Science magazine’s “Dance your PhD” competition by transforming chapters from his thesis into a dance video. The video won the prize for the Biology category, just missing the overall award.

Cedric Tan masterminded a video featuring three colourful dancers acting out the mating behaviour of fruit flies. The choreography depicts them eating fruit, sniffing each other, fighting, and making love.

Cedric’s thesis focuses on the role of relatedness in the sexual dynamics of the fruit fly and the red jungle fowl. The video, titled Smell-Mediated Response to Relatedness of Potential Mates, illustrates two chapters from the thesis. Cedric explained that one chapter “investigates whether brother-brother relationship reduces male-male competition.”

“Usually the males fight against each other for females, but if the male they are fighting against is their brother then you’d expect a reduction in the intensity of the competition.”

The last third of the video looks at the female’s process of mate selection: “another chapter of my thesis depicts female choice with respect to the relatedness between prospective partners and previous mates.”

Cedric believes in the usefulness of dance as a communicative aid: “choreography is definitely a way of disseminating the work of fellow researchers to non-scientists.”

The video features comic-book style transitions, a style that Cedric felt was appropriate considering the nature of fruit flies: “I wanted to incorporate the comic book effect because the costumes looked slightly quirky, with the wings and masks. Comic books often feature male-male competition, and there’s usually a pretty lady.”

Because the dance is an outline of a thesis, the behaviour displayed in the video is currently speculative. Cedric stressed: “the experiments are still ongoing, so the video poses the question rather than providing the actual results.”

His entry to “Dance your PhD” is only one facet of the way Cedric uses dance: “My passion has always been for conservation and ecology,” he says, and some of his other dance videos, such as his “Cultivation of Time,” take on ecological issues.

“I feel as society becomes more and more urbanised we slowly distance ourselves from nature, and dance can be an effective medium for learning about other living organisms and depicting our interactions with the natural environment.”

Harry Tuffs, a 2nd year student from St Edmund Hall, said: “I have to say I never expected to be impressed by a dance interpretation of fruit fly sex, but I was! It’s educated me – the seduction technique of the fruit fly is certainly more sophisticated than what you see in a typical Oxford nightclub.”

Cedric did modern dance for four years in Singapore, and since coming to Oxford he has taken up Latin and ballroom dancing. He competes for the Oxford University Dancesport Blues team and he was co-choreographer for last year’s Tamlane, which was performed in Wadham’s Moser theatre, and for the upcoming the Barefaced Night, which will be performed this Hilary Term.

Cedric graduated from the National University of Singapore with a Bachelors in Life Sciences, with a concentration in Biology. He is currently in the third year of his PhD, studying Zoology as a part of the Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology.

The other dancers featured in the video are James Sciberras and Elisa Pérez, both of whom took their Masters at Oxford University last year. James is currently studying for his PhD at the University of Bath, and Elisa is studying for her PhD at the Natural History Museum in Madrid.