Film Merges Student’s Dancing Talent, Knee Research

Photo courtesy of Lizz Knowlton

By Christopher Knowlton

I am a PhD student in bioengineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I work as a research assistant under Dr. Markus Wimmer in the Tribology Laboratory of the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at Rush University Medical Center, where I am doing my thesis research on the wear of total knee replacements. Like many graduate students, I have a second job, but I bet your list of best guesses didn’t include professional dancer.

On any given week, I spend around 10 to 20 hours per week in rehearsals and shows for various independent choreographers in Chicago. Until recently, my work as a graduate student and my career as a dancer were largely separate. But on Tuesday, I was named a finalist for the international Dance Your Ph.D. contest on Science magazine’s website.

A little over a year ago, Rachel Thorne Germond of RTG Dance, the first choreographer I worked with in Chicago, posted a link to the contest on Facebook. Not long after, there was an explosion of posts among my dancer friends sharing a TED talk given by John Bohannon & Black Label Movement called Dance vs. powerpoint, a modest proposal. John Bohannon is a correspondent for Science magazine who created the Dance Your Ph.D. contest to encourage scientists to better engage a broad audience with complex ideas. Since I was hearing about this contest from other dancers instead of PhD students, it became obvious that nonscientists really connected to this type of presentation. It was such a great fit for me that I knew I had to participate.

I asked a few dance friends to dance for me, another friend lent us space at an empty art gallery and two friends who make films as a hobby agreed to film us. I originally made the dance so that it could be performed live and adapted it for the camera. I created the choreography in three two-hour Saturday morning rehearsals with my dancers, and then we filmed everything in six hours on the final Saturday.  Interestingly enough, I wrote the scripted subtitles after the dance was filmed. This film walks you through the subject matter of my thesis, focusing at first on the significance of the research, then on methods, and then on the mechanisms driving the results, much like an academic paper would.

Dancers have a special relationship with joint replacements. Many complain of knee or hip pain and may need knee or hip replacements as they age, so this project was very near and dear to my heart. Ultimately, I hope the video can encourage people to take a deeper interest in the translational scientific research that happens at Rush, and how that research can make a significant impact on the quality of lives of our patients.

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