Alum turns a doctorate into dance to win 'Dance Your Ph.D.' contest

Forget poster sessions and PowerPoint presentations. Newly minted UO chemistry doctoral recipient Checkers Marshall prefers to use a more creative medium to share their research: dance.

Marshall is the winner of this year’s Dance Your Ph.D. competition, which challenges graduate students to creating videos explaining research through creative movement. Marshall’s video on their doctoral subject — a kind of material called a metal organic framework — beat out 27 other submissions from around the world.

Metal organic frameworks, or MOFs, are porous, spongy materials made up of metal ions interspersed with small, carbon-based molecules. Working in the lab of UO chemist Carl Brozek, Marshall helped develop ways to make the material as nanoparticles. The nanoparticles could be useful for many applications beyond the lab, such as pulling carbon out of the atmosphere or removing lead from drinking water.

“I don’t think science and art have ever been totally separate for me,” said Marshall, a longtime fan of the Dance Your Ph.D. competition. “I watch all the videos every year; I think it's so fun to see how creative scientists can be. So when it came around this year, I thought, now it's time to do mine.”

Marshall is an ideal candidate to make a science dance video. Since high school, they’ve been practicing flow arts, which is a diverse group of movement-based art that includes juggling, staff spinning and fire dancing. Their skill shines through in the video, which features Marshall and friends juggling fans that represent electrons and building MOF nanoparticles with giant “atoms,” actually balloons covered with multiple layers of paper-mache.

Marshall spent months crafting the props for the video. “Every day, I’d go home from lab and work on making these plaster balloons.”

The background soundtrack, written by Marshall and produced with assistance from a friend, explains to viewers what a metal organic framework is and how it works, set to a catchy beat.

Friends from the flow arts community also helped out as dancers in the video. The group filmed the video in a single sunny weekend in August, but the music wasn’t finished yet.

“We knew it was going to be 88 beats per minute, so I put on a metronome and shouted the lyrics at people, and we made it work,” Marshall said.

Much like completing a doctorate, Marshall said dancing a doctorate is a team effort. “I had a lot of help from my friends. I'm very grateful to all of them.”

Marshall received a doctoral degree in December 2022, just before putting the finishing touches on the video. They now work for Svante, a company in Vancouver, British Columbia, that makes metal organic framework nanomaterials for carbon capture.

“I want people to know, generally, what MOF is. They're such cool materials, and they're rapidly becoming industrially relevant,” Marshall said. And now, if people read about MOFs in the news, “maybe they’ll think about my video!”

By Laurel Hamers, University Communications