U of A doctoral student fuses art and science to win 'Dance Your PhD' competition

Musical treatise on science of superconductivity likens electrons to unsociable loners who connect to form joyful pairs.

A musical about unsociable loners who become joyful, active pairs might not seem like a lesson in advanced physics, but for a University of Alberta doctoral student, it was the winning entry in an offbeat science competition that saw contestants explain their research in song and dance.

"I genuinely didn't expect to win, and I had a ridiculous grin on my face the entire day," said PhD student Pramodh Senarath Yapa of Superconductivity: The Musical!, his first-place entry in Dance Your PhD 2018, an international competition sponsored by Science Magazine.

"Putting together an entry for Dance Your PhD had been a dream of mine for a long time, and my brain couldn't fully process the fact that I had won."

Senarath Yapa, a PhD student in the Department of Physics, is studying quantum phases of matter-what happens when you cool collections of particles down to near absolute zero, or -273.15 C.

He based his winning entry on how electrons behave at these temperatures, helping convey a complicated topic in a fun, visual way.

At extremely cold temperatures, Senarath Yapa explained, materials stop behaving in the classical manner we see in our day-to-day lives and show surprising properties like superconductivity, where electrons pair up and the electrical resistance of a material drops to zero.

The science has applications for quantum computing, bio-sensors and clean-energy technology-but it also makes for a good dance number, said Senarath Yapa.

"When I made the connection that superconductivity relies on lone electrons pairing up when cooled, I realized that I could represent that as electrons being unsociable people who suddenly become joyful once paired up."

Senarath Yapa's entry took first place among 50 submissions, the result of six weeks' worth of intense preparation and one extremely long day of recording.

"My favourite moment of production was actually captured on video," he said. "It's right at the end, when everyone breaks out into dance and celebrates-it was absolutely a genuine reaction, and we had a great big group hug right after the camera turned off."