Posted on 01 May 2012.
Originally from Milton, New Hampshire, PhD student Jessica Trout-Haney joined the Cottingham laboratory this past fall, where she studies aquatic ecology. Examining how toxins move through the food web, Jessica looks at what stimulates certain bacteria to produce these toxins—and what happens when animals eat them. As a member of the Dartmouth IGERT program, Trout-Haney will also take part in one of the defining experiences of being an IGERT fellow this summer when she begins field research in Greenland. In fact, this emphasis on the Arctic was a “huge draw” for Trout-Haney to join the IGERT program at Dartmouth.
“I really wanted to explore the science of the Arctic, and to learn about the physics of ice and snow,” explains Jess. “I wanted to learn how to apply ALL sides of scientific research to a problem, not just from my point of view as an ecologist.” While IGERT team members’ research differs on an individual level, the group frequently meets within interdisciplinary cohorts to discuss ideas and research issues from the perspectives of other academic disciplines. “We’re each other’s field assistants,” notes Jessica.
In addition to being a first-year PhD student in ecology, Jessica is also an accomplished dancer who recently had a solo show at the Hopkins Center. As an undergraduate at the University of New Hampshire—where she double majored in zoology and German and double minored in music and dance—Jessica realized how her seemingly disparate interests in both dance and science could inform and complement the other. After college, she continued to dance during her graduate work at Villanova, where she received a masters degree in biology.
Without a doubt, Jessica believes that her life-long interest in dance has directly impacted her scientific work, providing her with a creative outlet from her academic research. “A creative person asks creative questions,” says Jessica. “I’m inspired by scientific issues, and it has made me think about how I portray these questions through dance.”
A self-described “huge fan” of the arts, Jessica pointed to last year’s collaboration between the dance company Phantom Limb and the IGERT program as an effective way to bridge the gap between science and the arts. According to Trout-Haney, programs like Phantom Limb’s 69°S., which depicts Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1914-1916 Antarctica expedition through a modern lens, illustrate an innovative way to convey scientific ideas to diverse audiences. “It fosters an appreciation of deep history in a way that’s accessible to everyone, not just scientists,” says Jessica.
At first, Jessica says her classmates and friends “tried to make a connection” between her dance and science background. While “overwhelmingly” supportive, many of her peers are often curious about how her interests relate to each other. For Jessica, the fit between dance and science is natural—and not all that unusual.
“Everyone here [at Dartmouth] is very focused on their academic work, but almost all of my classmates have really interesting outlets outside of the lab, whether it’s climbing, music, hiking [etc.]” says Jessica. “I’m not very unique in that respect!”
Jessica’s performance at Dartmouth was a part of the “HopStop” series at the Hopkins Center. Geared towards families and children, “HopStop” is a monthly series that features interactive performances and shows developed to engage children and get them excited about different forms of art and performance. Jessica’s performance highlighted her work in various dance genres, including tap and body music. A combination of traditions rooted in traditional African and Irish dance, body music can also extend itself into such recognizable styles as swing and softshoe. During her Hop performance, Jessica demonstrated how to simultaneously create rhythms and sounds using all parts of the body, a movement which she describes as “very organic and earthy” and “something that we all do naturally as children.” Noting the process of trial-and-error that occurs during such artistic exploration, Jessica likens the development of a performance to an “experiment” in which variables are continuously tested and altered.
According to Jessica, this sort of outreach is important not only to foster creativity, but also to show young children–much like herself at that age–that it’s okay to have different interests and passions. “You can have an artistic side as a scientist—one interest doesn’t have to exclude the other!”
by Erin E. O’Flaherty