Interview with a dancing scientist

By sheiler on
picture of dancers imitating the fruit fly

Our interview with Cedric Tan, famous for dancing his PhD thesis topic.

We featured Cedric earlier here at the bloog because he made a dance out of his graduate studies on fruit flies and … chickens – also known as ‘red jungle fowl’.  And it was excellent!  He is currently a PhD student at the University of Oxford in the Zoology department.  As a hobby, Cedric choreographs dances based on human-nature interactions, reaching out to the masses on issues of conservation and topics of his PhD research.

Professor Blue: How old were you when you became interested in science?

Cedric Tan: Probably about 10-years-old when I was in Primary school.

Professor Blue:  Which interest came first for you: the fruit fly or the dance?

Cedric Tan: Definitely dance! I started dance 6 years ago and was interested in animal behavior about 4 years ago. However, it was only recently (about 1 year ago) that I started combining both of these interests to create dance pieces like the one in the video.


cedric tan studies the dance of the chicken

Professor Blue: Do you have other family members who are also in the sciences?  If yes, how did he/she/they influence your decision to go for a PhD?

Cedric Tan: None of my family members are in the sciences. I‘m pursuing this area because I am passionate about conservation issues.

Professor Blue: How many different species of fruit fly are there and why did you choose to observe the ‘common’ one?

Cedric Tan:  There are thousands of species of fruit flies. The common fruit fly is important in scientific research and display amazing behavior that one would not expect at first glance. In fact, these fruit flies are not at all that ‘common’, they display interesting and unique sexual behavior that we as humans can learn from.

Professor Blue: Did you ever consider becoming a veterinarian instead of a fruit fly expert?

Cedric Tan: Certainly thought of becoming a wild-animal veterinarian because of the prospects of working with endangered species and contributing towards conservation.

Professor Blue: Do you consider school to be work?

Cedric Tan: Not at all, I love doing my research, dancing and teaching undergraduates. It is like doing your favorite hobbies everytime and everyday of the week.

Professor Blue: Do you ever feel like swatting common house flies when you’re away from your lab – why or why not?

Cedric Tan: Not really, after seeing how interesting and cute (especially when they are cleaning their heads with their forelegs) they can be, I usually let them fly away. When they are flying around my face, I would sometimes remind them that I am not a fruit.

Professor Blue: How did you decide to make a dance for your PhD?

Cedric Tan: I created this video as a submission for the competition sponsored by Science journal. I have always enjoyed choreographing quirky dances based on themes of human-nature interactions because I believe that an interplay of art and humor can effectively spread the word of conservation and disseminate the work of fellow researchers to non-scientists. In addition, my PhD thesis is based on animal sexual behavior, which has never failed to fascinate me. Upon hearing about this competition, my colleagues and I immediately took a shot at creating a piece for my PhD thesis that explores the fascinating sex life of fruit flies.

Professor Blue: How did your boss (thesis supervisor) react to your winning the dance competition?

Cedric Tan: I have two supervisors, one who is an expertise in fruit fly behavior and the other in chicken behavior. They were both very happy for the win and I can’t thank them enough for being so supportive of my artistic works.

Professor Blue:  Why did you decide to study two different animals?  Why specifically the fruit fly and chicken and not, say, a spider and a cow?
Cedric Tan: There are three main reasons for choosing to study these animals. They are model systems used in the research of animal behavior and the link between genes and behavior. Secondly, both of these animals are sexually promiscuous in which both males and females mate multiply, therefore creating episodes of male-male competition over females. Thirdly, these species are limited in dispersal, thus there is a high probability that relatives interact. This is important because my PhD research focuses on the mechanisms through which relatedness affects sexual interactions: for e.g. how brother-brother relationship mitigate the intensity of competition between males.

Professor Blue: How old are you and where are you from?

Cedric Tan: I’m 27-years-old and I’m originally from Singapore.

Professor Blue: Are you required by law to drink tea at Oxford, it being a British institution and all?

Cedric Tan: There is indeed a lot of tea-drinking at Oxford, Breakfast tea, tea before lunch, tea after lunch, tea breaks in the mid afternoon, and calming teas before sleeping. I, on the other hand, love coffee. When working with flies, I have to use a pooter to suck them and transfer them from one container to another. Because fruit flies behave strangely upon exposure to caffeine (found in coffee), I would have to forgo coffee when conducting fly experiments.