Who says hip-hop and exploding chemicals don’t mix? Not UCLA biochemistry Ph.D. candidate Jeffrey Vinokur. Known to schoolkids as the Dancing Scientist, the edutainment superstar blends street-smart dance moves with spectacular lab demonstrations. “I was basically born a mad scientist,” says Vinokur, who grew up in New Jersey doing DIY experiments in his parents’ garage.
Then, in high school, he took a deep dive into hip-hop dancing. He learned moves from YouTube tutorials, then created a series of instructional videos — 23 million views and counting — that teach home viewers how to lock and pop.
Five years ago, Vinokur combined pyrotechnic chemistry with rubber-limbed choreography on America’s Got Talent, and his Dancing Scientist act took off. In one segment, he dances the “robot” while pouring acids and bases into vegetable dyes that change colors to the beat of electronic music. In another, demonstrating how car engines can operate on biofuel, he punctuates his slow-motion, body-popping moves with a literal “bang” by igniting ethanol-vapor-filled bottles with a Tesla coil device. These days, when he’s not appearing on TV shows such as The View or performing at schools, the 25-year-old doctoral candidate conducts biofuel research in UCLA’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.
Taking a break from his hectic schedule, Vinokur talks about newts, Carl Sagan and the joy of getting high-fives from fourth-graders.
Kids love your Dancing Scientist. How did you relate to science as a child?
I’d run around in the neighbor’s garden and catch bugs and worms and newts. I understood nothing about how the organisms worked, but I loved seeing how they behaved. Then I started building things: potato guns, engines, robots. I made little circuits that detected rain and set off an alarm in my parents’ room. In high school, I worked in a hardware store where I’d get all these household chemicals to do experiments. I had the gas mask, the gloves, the glassware and the foldable table. Some of the experiments got kind of dangerous.
When and why did you get obsessed with hip-hop dancing?
The dancing started for me in 2007, when I’d practice moves from watching YouTube tutorial videos. My parents were getting divorced, so dancing became an outlet to relieve stress and take my mind off things. I’d travel with my mom to New York City so I could take night classes from people who did professional popping. I’d go to “battles” to dance with other people. I improved fast, because for a year I did a massive amount of practice.
Your instructional hip-hop videos got a lot of attention while you were in high school. How did you create those?
I’d set up a camera on a tripod in our house, stand in front of the biggest stretch of drywall I could find and film myself. Because I learned how to dance from watching videos, I also understood how to teach on a video. I’d break down the moves, do slow motion, make analogies to real-life movement.
As an undergrad at the University of Wisconsin, you started to give public science demonstrations at local libraries. When did you add dancing to the mix?
America’s Got Talent became interested in my dance performance from my YouTube channel, so they invited me [to audition] on the show as a dancer. I didn’t make it that year. But the next year, 2010, I told them, “Hey, I’ve got a crazy new act: I’m combining dancing and science, things are exploding. You’ve never seen anything like it.”
You seem to connect with regular people in the way that Bill Nye the Science Guy did. As a kid, did you watch him?
I watched episodes here and there and tried a few things he did, but my biggest inspiration was Steve Irwin, the “Crocodile Hunter” guy. He was so energetic, almost to the level of being crazy, but he inspired people to respect nature and become interested in animal conservation. His passion was contagious. That’s how I am: I have this crazy passion for science, and I want to infect everybody with it.
Some say U.S. students need better math and science skills in order to keep up with those in other countries. Does your show get kids excited about science?
It would be naïve to say that my taking some dancing and science to these schools is going to solve all those problems. But if I can show schoolkids that a scientist can be young and look normal, if I can show them how awesome science can be and plant some curiosity, then I see that as the first step. Entertainment gets them through the door, and then the teachers take over from there.
Live performance and biofuel research don’t seem to have much in common. Do you reap different kinds of rewards from each activity?
I love gathering clues in the research lab like a detective, and I hope one day to make a contribution to producing low-cost biofuels from certain enzymes. But research is massively stressful, because you might do 999 failed experiments for every one that works. But performing for kids means instant gratification. When I go to a school and do a Dancing Scientist show, the kids are cheering, screaming, giving me high-fives, hugging me. You see the impact right away. I work seven days a week, but I really love doing both things.
Where do you see yourself in five or 10 years?
I’d like to do research and teach as my core activity and build on that. If PBS does a chemistry special, I want to host it and explain science to the public. I’d want to go on late-night talk shows and daytime shows now and again. I’d like to do some fun science for parents and kids, maybe at a performing arts center. The closest thing to a role model for me is the astrophysicist Carl Sagan. He published something like 300 articles and was really respected in the scientific community, yet he’d also go on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and host Cosmos, watched by millions on PBS. For me, that kind of career would be ideal.