Science to a beat

Sparking interest with wows and hip-hop moves

The Dancing Scientist is decked out like a rock star in a bejeweled lab coat and Bono-like lab glasses. He is on the set of ABC’s TV show “The View,” standing by glass containers of purple cabbage juice. The show’s host pours lemon juice into the first container. The Dancing Scientist stirs the mixture, and the deep purple color of the cabbage juice fades to a brilliant pink. The studio audience “aahs" in surprise. “So this is an acid-base indicator,” he explains. “It’s telling us that the lemon juice is acidic.” At the end of the segment, the Dancing Scientist remarks, “Red cabbage juice has some amazing effects.” As he takes a sip of the liquid, techno music begins playing, and he slides into a slick hip-hop dance routine. The audience goes wild.

The Dancing Scientist is a science-outreach persona who dazzles his audience with classic chemistry and physics demonstrations while explaining the science behind them. While he can be seen on TV shows like “The View” and “The Today Show,” he does mostly school programs, performing for students from kindergarten to high school. He sets the demonstrations to upbeat music, makes them interactive and performs some while dancing to engage and inspire kids to be enthusiastic about science.

In between shows, the Dancing Scientist is Jeffrey Vinokur, a Ph.D. student in biochemistry at the University of California, Los Angeles. Vinokur redesigns enzymes to produce biofuels and commodity chemicals. He solves the structures of enzymes using X-ray crystallography and figures out how to mutate them to make useful chemicals instead of the metabolites that they normally produce.

Coming together

The Dancing Scientist’s tips for doing outreach for kids

Keep it simple. Most kids don’t have dedicated science classes until around age 10. They are blown away by disappearing ink, instant snow (polyacrylamide) and pulling a tablecloth out from underneath plates. These are easy, cheap and highly portable. Leave the complicated chemistry for the research lab.

Focus on fun. It’s more useful to spark curiosity and create a memorable experience than to focus on teaching vocabulary words and concepts. They have full-time teachers for that. Spark their interest so when they have science class they will be more interested. That is goal No. 1.

Maintain control with a quiet symbol. The kids undoubtedly will get very excited. To prevent chaos, teach them a simple clap sequence or a special hand symbol. It’s corny but works like magic. When you make the symbol, they will get absolutely silent. Have them practice with you.

Join a group. That’s how I got into it — with the student group at the University of Wisconsin. They already were going to libraries and things. They trained me one day – here’s your script, here’s what you do, here’s how you don’t get hurt. And you go the library and do the presentation.

Keep at it! No matter who you are, your first time is not going to be outstanding. Mine sure wasn’t. You just learn it and improve. The key here is you’re really making an impact; you really are making a difference. When these kids see this stuff, they’re really impressed. You leave a mark on them.

Growing up, Vinokur was extremely enthusiastic about science. He built a lab for himself, equipped with goggles, gas mask, gloves and fans for ventilation. In his homemade lab, he did “really dangerous, stupid things,” he recalls. For instance, he ran electricity from a car battery through molten sodium hydroxide, which he sourced from drain opener, to make sodium metal. “I was just that into science,” he says. In high school, Vinokur did research at Rutgers University and Pennsylvania State University. He went to the University of Wisconsin–Madison for college and continued doing research there.

Vinokur’s passion for lively demonstrations stems from the teachers he had along the way. He had a chemistry teacher in high school who did “every demonstration in the book,” he says. As an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, he saw the demonstrations again performed by his chemistry professors and noticed that his classmates were amazed. Vinokur realized that if his fellow classmates had not witnessed the wonders of chemistry as he had before college, students with even less access certainly had not.

“Their experience with chemistry is big vocabulary words, abstract concepts and this dense textbook. That never got anybody into science. When you get into science, it’s because you see all that amazing stuff — flash, bang, fizz — and then you go to the textbook interested in figuring out why. But you wouldn’t care why if you’ve never seen the amazing stuff.”

The idea to do the Dancing Scientist act came to Vinokur five years ago while he was an undergraduate. “We’ll call it a case of convergent evolution,” he says. Vinokur was part of an outreach group that went to libraries and elementary schools to do science-education activities. He was also an avid hip-hop dancer and posted videos of his routines on YouTube. His videos became so popular that they caught the attention of the producers of “America’s Got Talent,” and Vinokur was invited to audition for the show.

His audition with just the dancing did not take him far, but the next year, Vinokur went back to the producers and pitched an idea to combine dancing and science. The routine would be “crazy,” he promised, and they would “never have seen anything like it.” The producers were intrigued and invited him back to perform the act. Until that point, the Dancing Scientist was a vague idea, but now, with the producers’ interest, Vinokur set out to make the Dancing Scientist real. He recruited the chemistry lecture demonstrator at his university and developed the science in the lab. He then took the demonstrations back to his dorm room and put them together with music to make them an act.

Leading a double life

Neither of his roles – Dancing Scientist or graduate researcher – are side activities. They are full-time commitments. When the Dancing Scientist is performing on TV, Vinokur works sunup to far past sundown for several days before and after the show. On a day when the Dancing Scientist has a school performance, Vinokur does the show in the morning and then returns to the lab in the early afternoon and works late into the evening. Vinokur averages two school shows a week and regularly appears on TV.

Jim Bowie, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry well-known for his work in protein crystallography and studying notoriously difficult membrane proteins, is Vinokur’s adviser. Bowie sees Vinokur’s zeal for outreach as a rare gift among scientists and is happy to support Vinokur’s outreach efforts. He is impressed by Vinokur’s success in handling the demands of both the Dancing Scientist and the graduate researcher.

“Jeff seems to have energy to burn and has an unusual ability to compartmentalize,” Bowie says. “For example, he sent me a revised draft of his latest paper the night before he appeared on the ‘Today Show!’ If you think about all the logistics of organizing a wild science demonstration before millions of viewers, I think it would be hard for most of us to pull our attention away from it to focus on something else.” Vinokur says that Bowie’s support and flexibility have allowed him to pursue both of his passions.

Vinokur’s career in science is already promising. Only in his second year of graduate school, he has two publications and a third one on the way. He is a National Science Foundation fellow and a trainee in the University of California, Los Angeles, Chemistry-Biology Interface Training Program funded by the National Institutes of Health.

While Vinokur loves performing his shows for kids, his outreach is also a business that handsomely complements the stipend he receives as a graduate student. A 50-minute school show runs $995, and two shows back-to-back, which most schools book, go for $1,595. His TV segments pay less. For appearing on a one-hour national talk show, he receives $1,094, while news programs do not pay at all. Vinokur says he mainly does TV shows for publicity and to bring science to a larger audience. TV appearances drive school bookings and also train him for a career in hosting science TV shows, which he hopes to do after completing his Ph.D.

When graduation comes, Vinokur will be at a crossroads in his career. Does he pursue his passion for outreach, or does he pursue his passion for research? Ideally, he wants to do both. He cites Carl Sagan and Bill Nye as his models. Sagan was an astronomer who made significant contributions to planetary science but is known by the public for the 1980 TV series he narrated and co-wrote, “Cosmos.” Nye was a mechanical engineer at Boeing before he became known as Bill Nye the Science Guy.

Vinokur dreams of having a dual career in which he is a professor running his own lab and teaching university classes while occasionally hosting TV shows that engage the public in science. A career like this would demand even more time than his commitments now, and he wonders if he can do both well.

But right now, being the Dancing Scientist in the morning and the graduate researcher in the afternoon is “such a great day,” Vinokur says. “I went in and did science for 500 kids, potentially impacted their lives. Then I was back in the lab, doing my research. It’s perfect.”

Maggie Kuo Maggie Kuo ( mkuo@asbmb.org) is an intern at ASBMB Today and a Ph.D. candidate in biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins University.