I want to…DANCE!

But I can’t. I am quite possibly the worst dancer in our galaxy (notice the nod to my self-esteem: I can acknowledge that there might be an entity worse at dancing somewhere in the universe). But still, this announcement spoke to my inner Balanchine.

Who said scientists can’t dance? The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is proud to announce the third annual “Dance Your Ph.D.” interpretative dance video contest. The contest, which is open to anyone with a Ph.D. or pursuing a Ph.D. in a science-related field, asks scientists to transform their research into an interpretive dance. Winners of each of the four categories (physics, chemistry, biology, and social sciences) will receive $500, then compete head-to-head for an additional $500 grand prize for best overall dance. Submissions are due by September 1, 2010. All winning dances will be screened at the Imagine Science Film Festival in New York City in mid-October, where the best overall dance will be determined by a panel of judges and the audience. A more detailed description of the rules and how to enter can be found at http://gonzolabs.org/dance/.

True confession: I once upon a time, 25 years ago, considered doing part of my thesis defense with interpretive dance, but decided that my profound lack of talent and the impracticality of bringing together a dance troupe on short notice made it impossible. I cobbled together an animation instead — on an Apple II. In lo-res graphics mode. Don’t laugh, it was a simpler time.

My thesis was basically an analysis of the construction of the motor circuitry of the zebrafish spinal cord. I was particularly interested in how descending outputs from the hindbrain, especially the Mauthner cell, connected to the segmental motoneurons of spinal cord. You see, we knew that if you stimulated the Mauthner cell, it sent a signal down the nervous system that made all the body muscles on one side contract abruptly, causing the animal to make a fast bend that was part of its escape response.

What I did was work out the anatomy of the cord, identifying two classes of motoneurons: the very large primary motoneurons, 3 per segment, which innervated large blocks of muscle, and smaller secondary motoneurons, which innervated smaller groups of muscle fibers. Then I determined that the Mauthner axon seemed to only contact the primary motoneurons; I also, with Judith Eisen, used fluorescent probes to mark motoneurons and watch them grow out over time. Those developmental studies and the anatomy of the cord — new fibers are layered onto the outside, so there’s a time-series laid out in space from deep cord (early) to superficial fibers (late) — led me to a choreographic model of development.

The Mauthner and primary motoneurons grew first, but the Mauthner had a long way to go, so in each segment primary motoneurons sent out growth cones, then the Mauthner axon arrived, and then after it had passed by, the secondary motoneurons sent out their growth cones. It was all in the timing (although my work in those ancient days could not rule out the possibility of specific molecular cues in addition). So the dance was obvious. Here’s what I would have done, given time and resources and complete shamelessness.

Picture a football field. Gathered on one sideline in clumps ten yards apart are groups of dancers. One in each group represents the primary motoneuron, and is dressed in brilliant blue. The others, in bright green, are the secondary motoneurons.

At the goal line is a single dancer in red, representing the Mauthner growth cone. At the start of the dance, she moves alone, trailing a red ribbon representing the axon behind, heading towards the opposite goal line. Since she’s a growth cone, the dynamic leading edge of a developing axon, she should be flamboyant and exploratory, reaching out all around her as she moves across the field.

As Mauthner starts, the primary motoneurons all wake up and send out their growth cones — they shouldn’t do it at precisely the same time or in any order, but asynchronously. The should move across the field in exactly the same pattern, however, trailing their blue ribbons behind them. Primary motoneuron growth cones are initially huge and expansive, so the blue dancers should be outdoing the Mauthner cell as they move.

Mauthner, as she crosses each blue ribbon, should pause and stroke the ribbon, and then tie her red ribbon to the blue, indicating the formation of a synapse. And then she moves on to the next and the next and next.

The secondary motoneurons rest quietly while all this is going on, but after Mauthner passes them, they should also jump up and start moving across the field, passing over the red ribbon but clinging to the blue, eventually diverging from it to explore their own little patches of the field.

It woulda been beautiful.

I missed my chance, though, for lack of talent and ambition. Don’t miss your opportunity: if you’ve got an idea, go for it, just so you don’t end up a gray-haired old geezer moaning about how he should have created some art, once.