Indian scientist wins Dance Your PhD contest in US

Indian scientist wins Dance Your PhD contest in US

The devastating Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was her inspiration. Indian-origin PhD candidate Uma Nagendra watched how people in her badly-affected home city of New Orleans, Louisiana, put their lives back together after the hurricane. She became curious about how the natural world recovered from disasters and used that idea as her thesis for her biology PhD.

During her studies in disturbance ecology at the University of Georgia, Athens, she also discovered the thrill of aerial-dance. She then put her skills to use and came in first when she entered this year's Dance Your PhD contest. Her video was chosen from 12 finalists as the overall winner by an expert panel of scientists and artistes.

This is the seventh year of the contest, which challenges scientists around the world to explain their PhD research through dance.

Ms Nagendra's father is from Bengaluru and hermother is Louisianan.

"Hurricane Katrina occurred while I was in college, first getting interested in the biology and ecology of plants. I was fascinated by how the ecosystem regenerated after the storm, and I wanted to know what were the mechanisms driving that regeneration," Ms Nagendra told tabla!.

It was a college friend who introduced her to aerial-dance.

"Once I tried it myself, I was hooked. I like that I get to use another part of my brain after a long day of looking at data. It's a different way of challenging myself, both creatively and physically," she said.

The award-winning performance was her debut as a choreographer and she admitted that her job was not easy. She even went to the extreme of creating an Excel spreadsheet detailing each measure of music and the dance movements to sync with it. However, the end result was worth the effort and there were plenty of fun moments along the way.

"My favourite part of the whole experience was bringing together dancers and scientists. Most of the people on trapezes are my dance classmates, and most of the soil organisms on the floor are other graduate students with very little dance background," said Ms Nagendra.

As the winner, she will get US$1,000 (S$1,295) and a trip to Stanford University in May next year, where her video will be played at a publishing conference to present the ideas of her thesis. These ideas aim to discover the unique interaction between plants and soils, and how natural disasters have the potential to change that interaction

Although her thesis may seem small-scale at present, Ms Nagendra does have a long-term goal to help people in need. So what is the potential of her research to help developing nations, for example, India, in conserving and protecting their environment?

She acknowledged that she does have those prospects in mind. "Certainly, the long-term goal of the research is to help people. Right now, we are still in the first stages of figuring out how things work. Hopefully, this will lead to more research that is directly applicable to agriculture, sustainability and predicting ecosystem changes."

After Ms Nagendra obtains her PhD in disturbance ecology, she hopes that, along with furthering the impact of her research, she will have the time to continue finding creative ways to explain her scientific concepts through games, simulations, or artistic collaborations.

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