Sex appeal of sperm dance wins PhD prize

A member of the University’s Department of Zoology has scooped the top prize in Science magazine’s 2013 “Dance your PhD” competition for his video on sperm competition.

Dr Cedric Tan’s choreographed interpretation of his research illustrates the mating process of chickens using a range of styles, including swing, water ballet and modern jazz.

The video shows swimming cap-clad sperm chasing a water-borne egg across a lake, and features cockfighting, scantily clad men in caps and speedos and inflatable “Zorb” balls.

Explaining the science behind the video, Dr Tan said: “First of all, a male invests more sperm in the females that have mated with his brother.

“Secondly, the female ejects a higher proportion of sperm from the brother of the first male mate and favours the sperm of a non-brother, giving him a higher fertility rate. One proposed reason for this is to increase the genetic diversity of the offspring.

“These two findings formed the basis of the concepts conveyed in the video.”

Dr Tan’s video currently has over 95,000 views. When asked about its success, he said: “It must have something to do with the sex appeal.”

“We are really surprised about how many views we got. I think the quantity of topless men in the video may have helped too.”

But he also stressed the academic response to his video: “Lots of people have asked questions on my scientific research, while others have sent in papers for me to look at.”

This is not the first time Dr Tan has received acclaim for his videos. He previously won the 2012 NEScent Evolution Video Contest and the Biology category of Science’s 2011 “Dance your PhD” contest.

“I spent a good part of four months on this video. As there is so limited time it can be quite stressful but I had fun.

“Provided you have enough time, video, music and dance are great ways of bringing science to a wider audience. People see me as someone who combines art and science.”

Although he said that funding was quite hard to come by for his first few videos, Dr Tan stated: “It comes more readily if you can build up a reputation. If the videos are good people are more willing to get involved.”

In the video, topless men jump at the inflatable ‘egg’ and bounce off it as it rolls across a field.

One of the dancers in the video, Karl Heilbron, a DPhil Zoologist at Queen’s, spoke of this: “We were in Port Meadow and the whole place was loaded up with cow shit and stinging nettles. So every time you jumped on the back of the ball you had no idea what you were going to land on.”

He went on to say: “This sort of thing definitely has a place in inspiring people to get into science.

“We did it with a great group of people. I have also been amazed at the number of people who have contacted me about the video, friends of friends who I’ve not talked to for ages.”

When asked about the open-air swimming, he said, “We were filming in spring and the water was very cold. In the video we jump into the lake once. But in rehearsal, Cedric made us jump in twice!”

In his defence, Dr Tan said: “I jumped in first and acted as a role model. It was very cold but was all worth it in the name of science.”

Stuart Wigby, also from the University’s Department of Zoology and the person responsible for the music in the video, said: “There’s definitely an emerging genre of science based entertainment. This video is a perfect example of that.”

The funding for this project came from the Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology, Green Templeton College and the European Society for Evolutionary Biology.

Dr Tan is reportedly planning something even bigger for next year.