Meet Kiki: Dancing through stereotypes to a PhD

Kiki: marine conservation scientist and dancerDr. John here…

Last week, I introduced you to my friend and colleague, Kiki, a marine conservation scientist at the University of Washington and a lifelong dancer. Kiki has managed to pursue a successful career in science — she’ll be an assistant professor at the University of Washington later this year — while mastering approximately 6.022 x 10^23 styles of dance.

How did she do it ? I had the opportunity to ask Kiki a few questions, and I’ve shared her responses below. Kiki, thanks for the taking the time to tell us about your experiences on Science Cheeerleader. Off we go!

Kiki, as we saw in the last week’s video, you’re quite the dancer. What kind of dance training do you have?

Kiki: I began my dance career as an undergraduate in 1993 at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. There as a dance minor, I regularly performed in modern, jazz, and african dance pieces as well as choreographing my own work. Throughout graduate school, I taught and performed with the Dance Arts Studio in Morehead City from 1999-2006. After finishing my PhD, I moved to California in the Bay Area, where I danced for Bonner Odell and was also recruited and joined a local professional dance company.

So what originally got you interested in science?

Kiki: In 4th grade, my teacher told us about the school science fair, which was voluntary. I was immediately fascinated by the idea of using experiments to answer questions about how the world works. My first project was a pitiful cardboard box display with a limp lemon and an unfurled paper clip that was supposed to create electricity. Despite that initial sad showing, every year after that I participated in the science fair and by middle school, I was researching background information at the Johns Hopkins University Library and winning awards.

You’ve managed to follow one dream associated with beauty and physique (dancing) and still pursue a science career usually associated with, well, geeks. Any advice for youngsters who might torn between the two?

Kiki: People do their best work when they are passionate about what they do, so follow your passion. But also keep in mind that it is becoming the norm to have more than one career in one’s life time. For example, the Olympic skater Debbie Gibson won an Olympic silver medal and then left the ice to obtain a medical degree.

Another thing to keep in mind is the freeing power of the “mash-up.” Look for opportunities where you can do science and engage in your physical pursuit. If you don’t see that opportunity, then be an entrepreneur and create it.

There was an excellent story in Science Magazine about a marathon runner who did just this. In order to get permission to be absent from an exam in order to run the Boston Marathon, a student asked his professor if he could do a presentation on the physiology of endurance running. That presentation grew into a research project and eventually an article in PLOS Computational Biology that was summarized by Science.

Did you find that stereotypes about dancers helped or hindered your professional experiences? Do you think people took you seriously?

Kiki: Unfortunately, I had a number of hindering experiences. The first time I realized that other scientists judged me negatively for dancing was when I was applying to graduate school. I asked my biochemistry teacher for a reference, and she wrote a glowing one with the exception of the introduction, which began “When I learned that Kiki was a dancer, I didn’t think that she would do well in my biochemistry class…” This sentiment that a dancer could not be a good scientist arose repeatedly throughout my career, especially from fellow graduate students and even an interviewer for a fellowship (which I successfully obtained).

Kiki - Ballet

But despite these stereotypes, I also had amazing champions like my PhD co-advisor, Larry Crowder. When the other Duke graduate students were rushing off to prove themselves with their first summer field season, I called Larry and said, “Duke is the home of the American Dance Festival. I HAVE to participate. Is it okay if I don’t do a field season this summer.” Being a former drummer, Larry sees the link between creative art and scientific innovation and firmly believes that feeding ones creativity makes one a better scientist. Notably, my audition piece for the Festival was entitled “Experiments in Texture”, which systemically explored and presented a thesis on movement over three dimensional surfaces.

What about your fellow dancers? How did they respond to your interest in science?

Kiki: In general, dancers were more supportive of my science career. Some thought I over-intellectualized my choreography (which might be true). Others saw my passion for dance and asked if I would be happier making it my primary career pursuit. But they were all accepting of my choices, especially once I explained that my science is how I see myself contributing to a better world, while my dancing is a means to express my physical presence and connection to my local community.

Describe the typical reaction you get when people learn about your dancing days?

Kiki: People are typically very interested and impressed. They always ask what forms of dance I take part in, to which I respond, “I’ve never met a dance I didn’t like, although some didn’t quite like me” and then give them the laundry list of dance forms I’ve trained. These include ballet, pointe, modern, jazz, african, tap, east coast swing, lindy, waltz, contra, contract improv, salsa, bachata, and capoeira.

With hindsight and a flux capacitor, is there any advice you would give to your former 10-year-old self?

Kiki: Yes, open your mouth and tell you parents you want to start taking dance lessons. I would be a lot more flexible now and probably a better turner if I had started dancing earlier.

What was your secret to balancing your high school and college education with dancing?

Kiki: Planning, plotting, and calculated over-scheduling. I made sure that as many of my dance classes as possible counted towards electives for my degree. I even petitioned to do a special project so that my dance history course could count towards my honors college requirements. I made dancing count for a much as possible, taking an overload of credits every semester so I could fit in multiple dance classes, which were a nice bluster to my GPA. I also took academic classes during the winter break, so I had more time for dancing during the semester. I decided that dancing was my spare-time and spare-time was my dancing. My fellow dancers became my friends and social time was stretching between dance classes.

The more difficult balance at times were the seductive unexpected opportunities that often appeared at transitions in my life. For instance, when in graduate school–for just the experience of it–I auditioned for a dance company and nailed the audition. Suddenly, a professional dance career was a real possibility, but the company was based out of state and would mean leaving the graduate program at Duke.

In moments like those I have to look dreams in the face and ask myself: How fulfilling will it be to pursue this? Is there a way to have equal or near equal fulfillment while maintaining my science career? Needless to say, I told the company director that I was serious about graduate school and would not consider leaving. I look back and know without a doubt that was the right choice, and I also have a sense of pride knowing that dream could have been mine if I wanted it.

What is a marine conservation scientist’s typical day at work?

Kiki - Pointes

Kiki: That is the great thing about my career, there is no typical day. Every day is very different, but some of the things I do regularly include waking up and reading a scientific article while still in bed (it’s my equivalent of a morning cup of coffee). Next, I answer email and read the latest science and environmental news, often still from bed. Then, I get out into the world.

I may have meetings or conference calls with colleagues. I try to spend a few hours each day moving my current research project forward. Right now, that involves piloting a new sampling method I have devised and teaching myself to use a couple of new analytic software programs. I end the afternoon by spending two hours writing up some of my previous research for publication in a journal.

Science technology, engineering, and math are awesome. How can we encourage more people to get involved?

Kiki: I recommend that people who are interested in science as a career get some hands on experience through an internship or volunteering. Whenever, possible I help facilitate them finding such a position. I also give career advice to anyone that asks. To encourage a general interest in science, I happily serve as my friends’ and family’s personal science-decoder ring. When they hear something interesting or confusing about science on TV or read something in the paper, they’ll call me to explain and discuss it with them.

I also occasionally just butt into other people’s conversation, if they are talking about a subject I know about. It’s amazing how many people find it interesting to talk to a scientist about what they do.

How big of role can citizens without formal scientific training playin real scientific research?

Kiki: In marine conservation, there are a number of citizen science projects that have been on-going for decades. People volunteer to walk beaches and record data on dead and dying sea turtles and marine mammals that wash ashore. In other research, volunteers survey populations of sea birds. The data generated by these efforts has been fundamental to monitoring the progress of efforts to conserve protected species. At the International Sea Turtle Symposium, citizen scientists regularly give scientific presentations on their efforts and these presentations are as well received as those from degreed-scientists.

How can we start to demystify science and the scientist?

Kiki: By being open and talkative about what we do in language that people can understand. By bringing our friends and family into our labs and field sites to see what we do. By taking a few minutes to respond to that email that has been circulating around the department with a question from a secondary school teacher or student.

Other than basic research, what are some interesting ways that people can apply science in their professional life?

Kiki: Science olympiad is an excellent example for students. I’ve also seen a number of performing art pieces from plays to dances about science. And of course, there are the applications of basic research; for example, helping to inform new regulations or non-profit initiatives.

Kiki - ModernSo far, so good. What are your plans for the future?

Kiki: In September 2011, I will begin a position as an Assistant Professor at the University of Washington, School of Marine Affairs. I plan to continue my research in marine conservation, specifically exploring how technology can be used to protect imperiled species (e.g., turtles) from human activities (e.g., fishing), while allowing those activities to still occur.

Time for the rapid fire round. Favorite athlete and why?

Kiki: My favorite athlete is the Olympian, specifically the nameless Olympian in the sport you never see on TV except during the Olympics. People who know me well, know that I’m obsessed with the Olympics. For those two weeks every two years, work comes to a halt, and I get very little sleep. I’m mesmerized by the stories of these unknown yet high achieving athletes, the ones without big endorsement deals and the support of a team. I’m fascinated by the woman who puts her life on hold to train for just the chance of being an Olympian and by the man who trains long lonely hours in the most basic of facilities. They inspire me, but oddly they inspire the scientist in me more than the dancer.

The life of a scientist can be much like that dedicated athlete training in cold early morning hours day after day. The daily reality is not glamorous.  Scientists work years for the opportunity to do something great, but the passion keeps them in diligent pursuit. At the end it is enough to have walked in the opening ceremony representing their country, regardless of whether they win a medal.

For me, at the end, it will have been enough to have worked in the field of conservation, doing science that moves us closer to a sustainable world, regardless of whether I first author a paper in Science , have an experiment lauded as “elegant”, or am elected to the National Academy of Science (my personal science equivalents of olympic medals).

Craziest dancing experience?

Kiki: For my birthday one year, my friends and I attended a performance art show. After a particular dance company performed, one friend leaned over and told me I should try that style of dance because I would be great at it. With that statement she rang the bell of one of my secret performance desires. Later, that evening, completely unprompted, the director of that particular dance company walked up to me, asked if I danced and whether I would consider auditioning for her company. Talk about serendipity!

As part of the audition I had to choreograph a brief piece. After agonizing about it for days, I was looking at one of my birthday presents, a “geek” patch. Suddenly, it was perfectly clear. The piece was supposed to display who I was as a dancer, so I selected the song “Weird Science”, made the geek patch part of my costume, and choreographed a quirky science dance. The best part is that I got into the company!

More exhilarating: positive experimental results or nailing a dance move?

Kiki: My most exhilarating dance experience occurred while dancing at the American Dance Festival. I took a class that went into the community (summer camps, the county jail, a drug rehab center) and taught people how to express themselves through dance.

One day, we were at the Veterans Hospital in Durham. Many of the patients were amputees and stroke victims, so their movement was extremely limited. Thus, some patients would not actively participate. So we would make up movements for them. This particular day I led an exercise on hopes and dreams that began by focusing on people’s hobbies.

When we came to a gentlemen who had never participated before, we waited briefly and were about to create a movement for him when realized that he was slowly moving. With great effort, the man raised his hands and made a rough circle and whispered a word… “stars.” The man’s hobby was astronomy. We had found one thing that meant so much to him that it was worth the pain of movement!

That silent moment, pregnant with awe, made tears well in my eyes and the memory still gives me shivers. Later, his physical therapist said that was the most movement she had ever seen him do. I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of something as a dancer more meaningful than that moment.

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