Movers model diffusing molecules in a cell represented by a chain link fence.  Photo Credit: David Odde

Movers model diffusing molecules in a cell
represented by a chain link fence.
Photo Credit: David Odde

David Odde may be the first scientist whose lab meetings include a dance company. Four years ago Odde, professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Minnesota and ASCB member, started collaborating with Black Label Movement (BLM); a Twin Cities-based dance theater. Together they use dance to simulate molecular processes.

The idea of using dance as a method to communicate cellular processes isn’t new. In 1971, future Nobel winner Paul Berg narrated while trained dancers led 200 enthusiastic extras on a Stanford University sports field through a famous protein synthesis dance film. More recently, the “Dance Your PhD” contest has scientists interpreting their theses. But rather than merely illustrate research, Odde and BLM use dance as a modeling tool to investigate molecular processes.

Odde met Carl Flink, the artistic director of BLM and chair of the Theatre Arts and Dance department at the University of Minnesota, through a common interest in catastrophe. They were both working on projects relating to catastrophe through the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) at the University of Minnesota. Flink was working on a dance movement called ‘Wreck’ and Odde was working on microtubule catastrophe (when the subunits of the microtubule scaffolding disassemble). The IAS required project leaders to meet with each other, which prompted Flink and Odde to start exploring microtubule catastrophe through dance. Their work together is now funded by the IAS.

Early in their collaboration, Odde and Flink were depicting microtubule catastrophe and its fundamental importance in cellular processes like cell division. Then Flink asked Odde whether his dancers could be used in his research.

It turned out that “bodystorming,” that is, brainstorming with dancers standing in for molecules and cell structures, helped Odde gain a deeper understanding of his own work. “When you’re actually the molecule you study, you relate to the science in way you couldn’t before,” said Odde. Typically, five to eight “movers” participate in bodystorming, but up to 60 dancers have been used in the process.

When the scientist and the choreographer began to explore scientific ideas together, Odde’s lab was investigating protein concentration gradients in vivo and in silico. Odde said that bodystorming the concentration gradients helped him to quickly weed out his computer models. One of the early models seemed reasonable enough on the screen, Odde recalls. “But when we did the bodystorming [of that model] nothing was happening, it was going to take a long time to reach the steady state gradient. I realized it was just too slow.”

In a TEDMed talk this year, Odde demonstrated how, by giving movers rules of molecular movement, they can model protein diffusion. Odde and the BLM gave their talk in Washington, DC, appearing with fitness guru Richard Simmons and NIH Director Francis Collins. It was the fourth TED talk that BLM has been involved with, though it was the first time they appeared as scientific collaborators rather than illustrators.

Odde continues to use computer modeling in his research, but believes bodystorming can be a valuable first step. “The problem is that computer modeling takes a lot of time. Students will takes weeks and months programming and debugging,” Odde said, “but [with bodystorming] you can rapidly prototype a model and do computer models if it’s worth following up on.” Odde compares it to a “quick and dirty experiment” that a wet bench scientist might do before rigorously testing a hypothesis.

Recently, Odde’s lab and BLM have been working on the molecular crowding problem: how the presence of macromolecules in the cell affects the rate of a specific reaction. “We’ve been going back and forth between the bodystorming and computer simulations, which build our intuition and computer-based results,” he explained.

Flink and Odde have learned more than just how to build models together. Bodystorming has shown Odde the art in his computer modeling, and Flink the science in his art. “I’ve come to realize that in making mathematical models or in choreographing a dance or in writing a book, you have to decide what’s in and what’s out, and those are artistic decisions,” said Odde. Flink now views dance as “simply a modeling event.”

They have also picked up leadership skills from each other. “Carl leads by example. He works really hard and people rise to that,” Odde said. He is now more deliberate about exemplifying the traits he hopes to foster in his students. In watching Odde work, Flink says he’s noted “a commitment to frank bluntness that I find extremely refreshing.” Flink now tries to bring that directness to his own rehearsals, realizing that it speeds up the artistic process.

Odde and his researchers continue to have monthly “lab meetings” with Flink and his dancers. For his part, Odde said that collaborating with a dance company has been helpful, but acknowledges that it’s not for everyone. He also appreciates the break from routine. “It’s an opportunity to have some fun and to connect with science in a different way,” said Odde. “What I feel pretty sure about is that for me, personally, this is very fruitful.”

Christina Szalinski

Christina Szalinski is a science writer with a PhD in Cell Biology from the University of Pittsburgh.

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