‘Joyful madness’: ANU scientist wins global prize for ‘dancing his PhD’ about kangaroos | Science

The former Canberra scientist Dr Weliton Menário Costa said it “felt like winning Eurovision” when he learned he had won the global “Dance Your PhD” competition, for his quirky interpretive take on kangaroo behaviour.

His four-minute video titled Kangaroo Time features drag queens, twerking, ballerinas, a classical Indian dancer, and a bunch of friends Costa acquired from his time studying at the Australian National University.

The video collected the top prize awarded annually by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Science magazine, and San Francisco-based artificial intelligence company Primer.ai.

The competition encourages scientists to explain complex research to the wider public through dance, music and humour, and attracts dozens of entries from around the world each year.

“It’s super incredible,” Costa told the Guardian on Tuesday. “To win an international science competition, it’s like Eurovision – except we all have PhDs.

“It’s actually a real challenge, communicating research results and making a clear link between science and the performing arts. In Eurovision, you can do anything you want.”

Kangaroo Time narrowly beat an entry from the University of Maine, in which a second-year ecology and environmental science PhD student used the music of Camille Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre to convey her research on the invasive browntail moth.

Costa collected more than A$4,000 (US$2,750), winning the overall prize and the social sciences prize; it was the fourth time an Australian entry had won in the competition’s 17-year history.

In 2009, a University of Sydney entry won for a dance about the use of vitamin D to protect against diabetes. Two years later, a University of Western Australia entry won for a video about why orthopaedic implants fail; and the following year, a University of Sydney entry won once again for a work explaining the “evolution of nanostructural architecture in 7000 series aluminium alloys during strengthening by age-hardening and severe plastic deformation”.

Dr Weliton Menário Costa’s video was described as ‘joyful madness’ by Science magazine. Photograph: Nic Vevers/ANU

Costa based his entry on his four-year PhD study on animal behaviour, in a video Science magazine described as “joyful madness”. The judging panel of scientists, artists and dancers praised Kangaroo Time for its “sense of surprise and delight” and its accessible explanation of the science of marsupial group dynamics.

Using a remote-controlled car, the ANU graduate studied the behavioural differences and complex personalities of a group of more than 300 wild eastern grey kangaroos in Victoria.

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He found that like humans, kangaroos’ personalities develop in early life and often mirror the personalities of their parents and siblings; he found they take social cues from the group dynamic, and form social circles like humans too.

His conclusion: “Difference leads to diversity. It exists within any given species, it is just natural.”

The Brazilian-born biologist, who gained a scholarship from ANU in 2017, said he drew on his South American roots and a fascination with Australia’s unique fauna to write, produce and perform in the work.

A queer immigrant from a developing country, Costa said he could relate to how the kangaroos modified their behaviour to conform to the wider group.

“I come from a very humble family, a small town where most of the people are not educated,” he said, of his conservative upbringing. “When I came to Australia I came out to my family … in Kangaroo Time I celebrate diversity in my beautiful Canberra community that [mirrors] kangaroo behaviour.”

Since completing his PhD in Canberra in 2021, Costa, who goes by the name of WELI to his friends, has abandoned his academic science career and moved his home base to Sydney, where he is seeking to establish himself as a singer-songwriter.

Later this year he plans to release his first EP called Yours Academically, Dr WELI.


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