Published online 5 December 2007 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2007.357

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Cell biology sideshow draws a crowd

NIH cheerleaders and punny tunes win plaudits.

Sing it again slam: cell biology was made for music.Punchstock

“Talent is not a pre-requisite,” said Kerry Bloom, a cell biologist at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, minutes before he judged Cell Slam, a scientific sideshow that drew a crowd of more than 500 cell biologists during their society’s annual meeting. “Spirit — that’s what we want.”

And spirit he got, as a pair of “roadmap cheerleaders” — a word play on the US National Institutes of Health’s ‘roadmap’ for medical research — performed a choreographed tribute to cytoplasm, pom-poms in clutch. The cheerleaders were NIH researchers Clare Waterman and Margaret Gardel.

After three grueling days of posters, symposia and networking lunches, the 7,500 attendees of the American Society for Cell Biology meeting in Washington DC (see reports/americansocietyforcell_biology/">conference blog) were ready for a less cerebral session. Now in its second year, Cell Slam is a lecture on speed. Participants have three minutes to creatively communicate a scientific idea to a rowdy crowd of scientists and a panel of judges.

Top honours this year went to Stephen Dahl, a lab safety officer at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, for his ditty Beware of Viral Vectors, sung to the tune of something vaguely resembling Puff The Magic Dragon. The lyrics refer to a molecular biology trick used to make transgenic cells, as in for gene therapy, sometimes with health consequences.

“Lentiviral vectors are based on HIV, so lentiviral vectors should be handled carefully,” Dahl sang, sneaking an extra syllable or two into every verse.

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The loudest applause of the evening went to graduate student Geoff Hunt from Princeton University in New Jersey for transforming Snoop Doggy Dog’s 1993 hit Gin and Juice into a chronicle of late nights at the lab bench and a never-ending dissertation: “Another 10 years and I’m out the door,” he rapped.

The competition is a spin-off from the United Kingdom’s FameLab contest, a science communication free-for-all with a £2,000 (US$4,050) prize fund. But entrants at Cell Slam competed for a much more modest prize. “As opposed to a grant, we’re going to give you a NIH pin,” said the agency’s director, Elias Zerhouni, one of the competition judges. 

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