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Bums, biceps and Bunsen burners

American professors are getting their kits off in the name of science, says Glenda Cooper
Scientists in the United States are slipping out of their lab coats into something more comfortable.

Robert Valentini was once merely an assistant professor at Brown University, studying techniques for healing damaged tissue. From now on, however, he is "Dr September", a smouldering PhD in tank-top and shorts, with charms described succinctly as "Buns. Biceps. Bunsen Burners". He is one of 12 hunky researchers pictured in various stages of deshabille for the 1996 "Studmuffins of Science" calendar. The calendar, published, inevitably, in the United States, shows scientists skiing, swimming, cycling and lifting weights - anything but holding up a test-tube.

"Studmuffin" is an Americanism and, apparently, an affectionate term for a guy who combines sexiness with boyish charm. There are hopes that a calendar showing that scientists can be sexy will attract more students into the laboratories.

Dr September's new image is a result of the efforst of one woman, Karen Hopkin, a New York journalist who recruited the men, motivated, she admits, by self-interest. "I guess I had the idea for the calendar so that I myself could meet guys," she says. "Instead, I have this calendar."

Ms Hopkin, 32, the producer of a US radio programme, Science Friday, sought nominations for Drs January to December through a journal of science humour, The Annals of Improbable Research, and a computer service called ProfNet, an electronic bulletin board used by university news bureaux. She sought candidates on the Internet with the unbeatable chat-up line, "If you have a Y-chromosome and a PhD, you could be Dr December."

"I didn't really have a budget to go around the country and check out all the potential studs, much as I would have liked to, so I asked for photos," Ms Hopkin says.

Around 200 nominations were eventually received and some 75 photographs, which were sifted down to the 12 "delectable dozen" by Ms Hopkin and a panel of experts - scientists, friends and Karen's mother. "Some were aware they had been nominated and some were completely dumbfounded," Ms Hopkin says.

She cornered Dr Valentini after he was a guest on a Science Friday broadcast about tissue engineering and so-called designer body parts. "I was with my wife," Dr Valentini recalls, "and I said, 'What do you think?' She said: 'For the sake of science, you have to do it'."

In a completely unscientific but intensive piece of research, a panel of experts from the Independent has decided that the three most likely to encourage women into science A-level courses are Dr Valentini himself, closely followed by the delectable Dr March - Rob Kremer, lecturer at Colorado State University in Fort Collins - and the divine Dr May, also known as Robert Jones, senior professor of agronomy and plant genetics at the University of Minnesota.

Dr Kremer claims he was attracted to science because "you can do what you want, how you want and when you want", lists his favourite foods as Mexican and Thai and his favourite activity as hiking.

Dr Jones - 44 and single - says he'll never live down the day when he "set the tissue culture hood on fire", hero-worships Nelson Mandela and went into science because "every day you help to generate a base of knowledge that scientists will build on in the future".

As well as its visual enticements, the calendar offers science trivia; answers to questions such as, "What's your favourite subatomic particle?" and information about so-called "great dates", although these tend to be the anniversary of the discovery of radium and grant application deadlines rather than the traditional Saturday night.

"If people are going to buy this calendar to drool over all the half- clothed scientists," Ms Hopkin says severely, "they should learn something about science, too."

And Dr Valentini claims the calendar serves a higher purpose than ogling. "I think the ultimate idea is to make science and medicine more approachable for everyone in the public at large, to make scientists look like real people instead of nerds in the lab who have white coats and play with mice," he says.

The idea has yet to take off in Britain, though among possible candidates some might perhaps consider Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene, as Dr April or the naturalist Sir David Attenborough as Dr November.

But those with a doctorate and two X chromosomes have been left out. On the Net site for the Studmuffins calendar, someone plaintively asked, "Why no Babebagels of Science?"

The reply reads: "The answer is simple. Karen Hopkin calendar creator/heterosexual woman goes for guys." Babebagels will just have to wait another year.

'Studmuffins of Science' costs $14.95 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Museum Shop (001 617 253 4462). It can be ordered via the Internet at http://www.studmuffins.com