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A dance contest let this grad student share his research and celebrates his identity


Science magazine holds an annual contest called Dance Your Ph.D., where grad students are invited to present their research through dance. This year's winner performed a dance that showcases his work on kangaroo behavior, but the dance also celebrates his identity and what he's had to overcome. Here's science reporter Ari Daniel.

ARI DANIEL, BYLINE: Weliton Menario Costa grew up in rural Brazil. He didn't have much, but from his earliest days, he loved to sing.

WELITON MENARIO COSTA: I think if I could have picked a profession, if the world was equal and you could pick anything, I would have picked musician.

DANIEL: But the world wasn't equal. Costa would be outside singing and dancing with his sister, and that's when the comments would start.

COSTA: People was like, oh, that's a girl thing. You're [expletive] or whatever. Back then, I didn't even know what it was. I just knew it was negative.

DANIEL: So Costa buried himself in school and excelled. But he was chronically anxious about what others thought of him.

COSTA: So instead of going to parties and dancing or performing or doing the things I actually loved, I would just lock myself in a room and say, hey. I have homework. But when I would shower, I'll just sing every day.

DANIEL: Costa ultimately went on to pursue his Ph.D. in behavioral ecology at the Australian National University in Canberra. His research focused on the personalities of eastern grey kangaroos.

COSTA: And my main question was, do kangaroos have personalities? And then what's driving the behavior you see?

DANIEL: It was during this time, when Costa was on this other continent, that he managed to connect with who he really was. He came out as queer. He started singing and dancing out in the world again. And after defending his Ph.D., Costa decided to leave research.

COSTA: Now I'm going to be a singer. Now I'm going to be a dancer. Now I'm going to be all these things I liked as a kid. Last year I started performing my own original songs.

DANIEL: And this brings us to Science magazine's Dance Your Ph.D. competition.

COSTA: It would be, like, a perfect way of exposing my work as a singer-songwriter.

DANIEL: The song and dance "Kangaroo Time" was born.


COSTA: (Singing) Kanga-kangaroo, kanga-kangaroo.

DANIEL: The music video opens with Costa driving to what appears to be his field site. There are a couple of kangaroo shots, but mostly it's this joyous sequence of dancers on an open landscape - drag queens, capoeira performances, people doing samba, hip-hop, traditional Indian dance.

COSTA: The way they move is very different. But also what they wear to perform is quite different. I decided to use the actual diversity we have in the dance community.

DANIEL: This was how Costa represented one of his central findings - that kangaroos have distinctive personalities based in part on how they respond to new experiences. In addition, kangaroo siblings often have similar personalities. And for that, Costa dances alongside his own sister, the one he used to dance with as a boy.

COSTA: It was so special having her here.

DANIEL: The main lyrics are simple but catchy.


COSTA: (Singing) Some things I learned from my kangaroo time.

DANIEL: I'm going to share with you - hope you don't mind - some things I learned from my kangaroo time, which has a rainbow of meanings.

COSTA: It means the time I did my kangaroo research but also means the first time I lived as a gay man. It's the first time I lived as an immigrant - five years without going home - the time of reconnection to myself, of exploring my sexuality, of bridging this beautiful community.

DANIEL: Costa says that filming this music video, when all his worlds came together in a single afternoon, feels like his most significant achievement to date. The video ends with text emblazoned on screen. Differences lead to diversity. For NPR News, I'm Ari Daniel.


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Ari Daniel
Ari Daniel is a reporter for NPR's Science desk where he covers global health and development.