As It Happens

These PhD students won a prize for rapping about molecular clusters on a rooftop

University of Helsinki graduate student Jakub Kubecka has won Science magazine’s annual “Dance your PhD” contest for his video Molecular Clusters, which he wrote and performed with fellow students Ivo Neefjes and Vitus Besel.

University of Helsinki trio wins $2K US in Science magazine's Dance Your PhD contest

From left to right, Vitus Besel, Ivo Neefjes and Jakub Kubecka shoot the video for Molecular Clusters at the University of Helsinki. The video won Science magazine's annual Dance Your PhD award. (Faustine Cros )

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It's not easy making a rap video about science on a roof during the frigid Finnish winter in the midst of a pandemic — but Jakub Kubecka says he made it work with the help of some friends.

The University of Helsinki graduate student won Science magazine's annual Dance Your PhD contest for his video Molecular Clusters, which he wrote and performed with fellow students Ivo Neefjes and Vitus Besel.

"I love … speaking to a general audience about scientific topics and making it understandable. So we just decided, OK, we three ... can make the group and win this contest," Kubecka told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"Actually, it was just a joke. But we won it."

The Dance Your PhD contest was founded 13 years ago by John Bohannon, then a contributing correspondent for Science and current director of science at Primer.

The Molecular Clusters video features Kubecka, Neefjes and Besel, clad in white dress shirts adorned with skinny ties and pocket pens, rapping about the formation of atmospheric molecular clusters, spitting lyrics like "I'm the first author, you're just et al" and "Once the cluster has reached a certain size/water starts to condense. It's a cloud droplet — surprise!"

Most of the video is shot on the roof of a University of Helsinki building — partly for the "epic" visual, says Kubecka, but also because they needed to shoot mostly outside due to COVID-19 restrictions.

"It was an awesome idea to be on the roof, but the Finnish weather made us really suffer because we had just shirts and it was super cold," Kubecka said.

Kubecka says he likes communicating complicated science ideas in ways that people can understand. (Faustine Cros )

Not to mention the fact that the university's atmospheric monitoring stations kept interfering with their drone camera.

"So many times we lost the connection with the drone, and the drone was just going to the Baltic Sea, and we were trying to catch it," he said. "It was fun."

Still, Kubecka says bad weather, technical glitches and pandemic restrictions were the least of his problems. 

"Probably the biggest difficulty is that actually none of us is a good dancer," he said. 

But not being able to dance isn't enough to stop you from winning a dance contest when science is involved. Molecular Clusters won the contest's physics category, worth $750 US ($951 Cdn), and the top prize, worth $2,000 US ($2,534 Cdn).

Videographer Faustine Cros, front, shot the winning Dance Your PhD video featuring Kubecka, left, Besel, centre, and Neefjes, right. (Faustine Cros)

Kubecka credits his collaborators for making it all work.

"I don't think that I'm a good singer, but the collaboration with guys and making the film, this is something that I really enjoy," he said.

But still, he says he doubts any any of them will be make the switch from science to entertainment any time soon.

"I think they will go in the way of science, and where it will be possible, I will try to popularize science," he said. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by John McGill.

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