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PAPER TRAILS: North Little Rock grad a dancer of science

by Sean Clancy | March 21, 2021 at 8:13 a.m.

A masked woman dances to classical music on a beach in a video as a voice-over says: "All of your cells have double-stranded DNA. But to be used, your genes have to be transcribed into single-stranded RNA."

She continues to dance as the voice explains that "RNA carries building instructions that are translated into proteins."

The dancer and creator of the video is North Little Rock High School graduate Heather Masson-Forsythe, a doctoral candidate in biochemistry and biophysics at Oregon State University.

In the nearly six-minute long video -- arkansasonline.com/321papertrails/ -- Masson-Forsythe uses dance to show how the coronavirus nucleocapsid protein interacts with its genetic material.

The fun, thoughtful clip won top prize of $500 in the covid-19 category of Science magazine's Dance Your PhD competition.

Since winning, the 26-year-0ld Masson-Forsythe has been featured on NPR and at Forbes.com.

The video, shot by her wife, Margaux Masson-Forsythe, has four chapters and shows not only her ballet skills, but dance club-worthy moves to rock and hip-hop beats.

Scientist and journalist John Bohannon, who started the contest in 2008, told NPR: "She's capturing not only a whole bunch of the science and explaining it, but she's also capturing what it's like to try and solve scientific mysteries in tiny, little droplets of liquid. That's just really cool."

Masson-Forsythe started dancing in middle school and was part of the dance program at North Little Rock High.

It was through the school's international baccalaureate program that she became interested in science, and she earned a biology degree at the University of Central Arkansas.

In 2019, she started making TikTok dance videos, often science-inspired, and has more than 47,000 followers.

"I thought I would use it for science communication, to talk about specific scientific concepts or what it's like to be a scientist," she says from Corvallis, Ore.

As the pandemic grew, she switched her research at Oregon State's Barbar Lab to focus on covid-19.

"I wanted to see if there was a protein in the virus that was similar to proteins we had worked with before. I found that the nucleocapsid protein of SARS-CoV-2 is similarly built to the protein in rabies that our lab has studied," she says.

It's research that could help find new drugs that could block SARS-CoV-2 and stop viral replication.

She learned last week that a paper on her lab's efforts will be published in Biophysical Journal.

Of course all that work also spawned her video, the Dance Your PhD win and viral fame.

"I knew that if I won, I would get some media attention. I've been mildly popular on TikTok for a while, but it has blown up more than I anticipated."

email: sclancy@adgnewsroom.com

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