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UW-Madison student mixes passions for science, dancing

September 15, 2010 By Stacy Forster

Call him the Dancing Mad Scientist.

UW-Madison junior Jeffrey Vinokur is passionate about two things: chemistry and a style of hip-hop dancing called “popping.”

So he’s mixed the two into an act — think glow-in-the-dark hands and exploding balloons — that hints he’s leading the next wave of scientific entertainers.

He reached the top 100 of the more than 70,000 who auditioned for this season of NBC’s “America’s Got Talent,” and he has plans to take his show on the road to schools and science camps.

Video: The Dancing Mad Scientist

“I’ve always thought of myself as a scientist by day and dancer by night, and I completely separated them,” says Vinokur, a junior biochemistry major from Montvale, N.J., who also works in a biofuels lab on campus. “Then I realized that these two things could fit together.”

As part of his act, the chemicals that light a child’s glow stick come to life in Vinokur’s hands.

He starts by dipping his gloved hands into fluids he’s removed from 100 glow sticks. His hands emerge beaming with light from the mix of chemicals, produced through a reaction called chemiluminescence.

Then, the stage goes dark, and Vinokur’s hands — dancing in intricate movements — are the only things the audience can see.

Vinokur is part of a group of about 20 students involved in Students Participating in Chemical Education who do education outreach and perform chemistry demonstrations.

“That’s a really good example of where the science and dancing fit together,” Vinokur says. “People say, ‘Whoa, his hands are glowing, how does that that work?’ I can relate it to kids to show that it’s cool.”

Vinokur is part of a group of about 20 students involved in Students Participating in Chemical Education who do education outreach and perform chemistry demonstrations.

The group also does hands-on experiments at science fairs and performs Fusion Science Theater, which features characters doing experiments, says Katie Wichman, president of the group.

“A lot of the chemistry demos can be very flashy, and kids really like to see stuff blow up and change colors,” says Wichman, a junior engineering mechanics major from Plymouth, Minn. “Doing the demos gets their attention.”

In the past, the group has used elements like gymnastic back flips to liven up their shows, says Brittland DeKorver, an adviser to the student group.

“A large part of demonstration is the drama and entertainment involved,” DeKorver says. “We try to reach and educate our audience, but at the same time, making it entertaining is always a bonus.”

Vinokur taught himself how to dance during his senior year of high school. Once he mastered the moves, he offered up a set of instructional videos on YouTube that have now been viewed more than 7 million times, and sells videos to budding hip-hop dancers across the globe on his Web site,

Safety is paramount. To develop a performance that was entertaining and safe, Vinokur consulted with Jim Maynard, who runs the chemistry demonstration lab for UW–Madison’s chemistry department.

“We specialize in demonstrations and have a really good safety record, and we are used to the unconventional here,” Maynard says. “I watched what he did — not the dancing as much as the chemistry. He did a lot of the work, the practicing, the trying stuff out, and I provided safety advice and expertise.”

While the act for his first “America’s Got Talent” performance used all nontoxic chemicals, the act Vinokur took to film in Las Vegas was riskier. Vinokur spent up to 40 hours in Maynard’s lab practicing his performance, incorporating things like hydrogen-filled balloons, which explode when near a flame.

Vinokur credits Maynard with keeping him realistic about what experiments he could safely perform. When Vinkour dips his hands into the glow stick chemicals, for example, he’s wearing two sets of gloves — one latex, one cotton.

Maynard says he’s impressed by Vinokur’s motivation, and says he thinks Vinokur has gained a new appreciation for chemistry through his work on the act.

“Before I was a chemist I looked at the world in a different way, but now I look at things through the lens of chemistry,” Maynard says. “I think that’s happened to him.”

Vinokur has reached out to Bassam Shakhashiri, the UW–Madison chemistry professor who puts on the popular annual Christmas chemistry demonstration “Once Upon a Christmas Cheery in the Lab of Shakhashiri,” and Clint Sprott, a UW–Madison physics professor who performs “The Wonders of Physics” show.

“I’ve got the best of the best to learn from here, which is really cool,” Vinokur says. “I like to think of myself as the next generation that’s trying to take the torch and bring science to people.”

For more information about Vinokur’s show, visit