Grad student’s proteins cut a rug, win ‘Dance Your Ph.D.’ competition

Jan. 14, 2014

by Chris Barncard

Graduate school research can get long and tricky and complex beyond the easy understanding even of your fellow grad students.

Unless it has a beat, that is, and you can dance to it.

Ambalika (Rika) Khadria, a doctoral candidate in biochemistry, found the right moves to demonstrate her methods for exploring the proteins key to cell division in bacteria, choreographing a winning entry in the 2013 Dance Your Ph.D. contest sponsored by Science magazine and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Photo: Rika Khadria

Rika Khadria

“A family member in India sent me a news story about the contest, and it was such a good fit,” says Khadria, who choreographs thematic dances for UW-Madison’s Diwali Night. “When I was an undergraduate, I was trying to depict the periodic table in a dance. It seemed like such a good way to show people how some very complex science works.”

Now, Khadria’s undergraduate instructors at the University of Delhi’s Gargi College are showing their students “The ‘FRETting’ tendency of the bacterial protein,” which took top honors in the chemistry category of the annual Dance Your Ph.D. competition.

The dance video, which clocks in at about six-and-a-half minutes, is a quick but thorough course on the method Khadria has optimized for biochemistry professor Alessandro Senes’ lab to explore the structure of proteins in the membranes of bacterial cells.

Fellow grad students stand in for proteins called transmembrane helix peptides. “That may have been the hardest part,” Khadria says, “mustering the courage to ask all these busy friends to give me a whole day to learn and film the dance.” Wrapped in coils of silver tape to represent their helical structure, the dancers/proteins writhe through synthesis on a resin bed (or the floor of a Union South meeting room).

A lab-coated scientist marks them with blue or green dye — colored masks, an inspiration that struck Khadria at a party supply store and spurred her to enter the contest — and they are purified with a liquid chromatography column. (Or a row of chairs.)

The specifics don’t matter so much, as the concept comes across clearly through the dancers’ interactions and some textual explanations.

“For me, a dance usually starts with music and a mood,” says Khadria, who has adapted myths and the theory of evolution to dance for past performances. “This was different, because the science is very specific. So, I sat down with two or three sheets of paper and drew up formations for the dancers. It didn’t take long at all.”

Neither did a few video shoots and editing, showing the proteins/dancers awash with blue light. If the peptides in bacterial cell division remain as singular protein molecules (or monomers), they would glow blue. If they paired up (as dimers) during division, the closely tied dimers would produce a green glow as they shared light energy through a phenomenon called Forster Resonance Energy Transfer (“FRETting”).

“Who reads a Ph.D. thesis? Maybe some other graduate students and your advisor, and that’s it. Rika’s video has been watched almost 20,000 times.”

Ranga Rajan

As the green glow in Khadria’s research and video show, the transmembrane helix peptide in bacteria does couple into strongly bonded dimers during cell division. It’s the first structural information scientists have on the membrane proteins involved in bacterial cell division, and it may put a colored mask on a bacterial Achilles heel as yet unexploited by medicine.

“Bacteria evolve very quickly, including evolving resistance to antibiotics, the drugs we use to fight bacterial growth,” Khadria said. “But the antibiotics in use today don’t directly target this cell division process. We’re trying to map out that division process, to find more ways of inhibiting the division process. It might be a new way for drugs to stop or slow infection.”

That outcome would certainly top a dance contest win. For now, however, Khadria will pocket $500. And her often anonymous, dizzyingly complicated thesis work is receiving attention from fans of science and dance around the world.

“Who reads a Ph.D. thesis? Maybe some other graduate students and your advisor, and that’s it,” says Ranga Rajan, a chemistry graduate student who helped produce the video of Khadria’s dance. “Rika’s video has been watched almost 20,000 times.”

She hopes the recognition from Science and full support from her advisor, Senes, makes clear the value of crossing the arts with lab science.

“I think one is often seen as more important to education than the other,” Khadria says. “I’d hope this will encourage people that it’s important to make time for both.”

That seems to be the case already, at least among the nine grad students who danced her thesis. Some of them are thinking of choreographing their own research, with an eye to enter the 2014 dance competition.

“I’ve seen a lot of grad students lose their motivation in the lab,” Khadria says. “This was an important way to keep me connected to the science. I think this sort of project could do the same good for many grad students.”