A cell's violent dance

Dancers tell scientists about their experience 'inside' the cell

U professors Carl Flink and David Odde have discovered that skilled dancers can test a scientist's model of a cell's inner life more quickly than a computer can.

In minutes, biomedical engineering professor Odde can sketch a model's rules and dance professor Flink's dancers can play those rules out. To test the same model by programing a computer would take hours or even weeks.

For example, a big question in drug research concerns the difference between what happens in a test tube and what happens in a living cell. There’s more "stuff" in a living cell than in a test tube. Does that extra stuff reduce the space and somehow speed up the processes in the cell? Or does it slow things down because it prevents molecules from moving in straight lines? Dancers can play out models for both hypotheses.

There are limits. Dancers can't simulate every conceivable 3D movement. But there are plusses too. Dancers can talk about their experience "inside" the cell.

"A great advantage of using dancers is that we engage each other, whereas the computer remains silent after the simulation," Odde says. "The ensuing discussions help us 'deconstruct' models." 

The name they have for it is bodystorming—as opposed to brainstorming. 

"The researcher can actually discuss what the movers inside the experiment experienced and observed," says Flink. "They can also offer observations on their own that the researcher may have never thought of. This has happened a number of times."

Flink says bodystorming has had "a profound impact" on his choreography. "My piece HIT is a direct result of the impact between human bodies that we have explored," he says.