Meet Merritt Moore, the quantum ballerina

(Courtesy of Merritt Moore / Physics on Pointe)

(Courtesy of Merritt Moore / Physics on Pointe)

Merritt Moore couldn’t choose between a career as a ballerina or a career as a physicist — so she decided to do both. While pursuing degrees in quantum physics from Harvard University and the University of Oxford, she also performed with companies like the Boston Ballet, English National Ballet and London Contemporary Ballet Theatre.

Merritt (or Dr. Moore now that she successfully defended her thesis!) knows her path is unconventional and she couldn’t imagine her life any other way. She finds that dancing helps unlock her creativity as a scientist and approaching ballet from an analytical perspective helps push herself physically. Merritt wants to show girls that science and the arts aren’t mutually exclusive — and that you don’t have to be defined by just one interest.

I asked Merritt about her experiences in the lab and dance studio, her work to make physics more accessible to young girls and what project she’s excited to work on next.

Tess Thomas (TT): You’ve talked about how dancing makes you a better physicist and physics makes you a better dancer. How do you see those two worlds complementing each other?
Merritt Moore (MM): I gravitated towards physics and dance because they are both non-verbal activities. I have always found movement and mathematics much more natural than words and requiring a similar mindset. I think it is silly to categorise people as having either an analytic brain or creative brain because actually both are required for science and arts. For example, creativity is needed all the time in the lab to think of new solutions to approach and visualise problems in a different way. And in the dance world, being analytic allows you to stretch the limits of your physical abilities while finding new, innovative forms of movement.

(Courtesy of Merritt Moore / Physics on Pointe)

(Courtesy of Merritt Moore / Physics on Pointe)

TT: What advice do you have for girls who also want to pursue seemingly disparate passions?
MM: I believe gratitude and appreciation are crucial for excelling in any craft. Having a disparate career/passion helps create appreciation because it keeps things in perspective and makes one really appreciate what a privilege it is to have a chance to do either. For instance when I’m exhausted in the dance studio, there is nothing more that I would want to do than to curl up with a physics book in a library, and when I’m cooped up reading all day, it keeps me hungry to get back into the dance studio and try new movement.

And for advice to anyone pursuing their passions, I would give Newton's 3rd law of motion: “For every action, there is equal and opposite reaction” because I view it as a great motto for life. Everything you do inevitably circles back. All the work and intention you put into a dream will pay off (not always in the way you think but in a just as exciting and rewarding way).

TT: What is a lesson you learned in the dance studio? What is a lesson you learned in the lab?
MM: From the dance studio, I have definitely learned to bounce back from failure really fast. I’ve auditioned so many times and gotten rejected so many times that it doesn’t phase me any more. In fact, I love it because I know that every time I put myself out there, I am improving and getting closer to my succeeding the next time. In my theory for every ten things I go for, one thing works out, so I might is well get through the nine non-successes as fast as I can, so I can enjoy the moment when it does work out sooner.

From the lab, I learned to be an experimentalist and try different approaches without getting attached to any particular method. In everyday life, people are often given advice/instruction and it is taken as law. Unfortunately with that mentality, a lot of opportunities and possibilities are missed. In contrast as a physicist, I am constantly starting from scratch and trying totally new ideas. It has helped me be resistant against prejudices and preconceived beliefs and given me strength to march to the beat of my own drum.

TT: Why are you determined to make physics more accessible to young female students?
MM: I find it frustrating the way physics is taught. It starts with incredibly boring topics like ramps and pulleys, then puts a lot of emphasis on memorising and regurgitating facts. It’s incredibly isolating and there is an assumption that students should learn on their own from a textbook. I think there would be many more incredible female scientists if it was taught in a more collaborative way that emphasised imagination and creativity. That’s why I started SASters (Science-Art-Sisters) to encourage young girls to think and visualise science in a different more creative way.

I think there would be many more incredible female scientists if it [physics] was taught in a more collaborative way that emphasised imagination and creativity.

TT: Why is education important to you and how has it shaped your career?
MM: Education keeps one inspired and curious. It has opened so many doors for me, I don’t even know where to begin. I have just finished grad school so technically my “career” has just started a couple months ago, so we will have to see where it goes, but so far it has included professional ballet companies, virtual reality film projects, dancing with robots etc.

TT: If you can share, what is an upcoming project you’re excited about?
I am so excited to be here dancing with the Norwegian National Ballet for their upcoming production of Swan Lake! I am still pinching myself that I am dancing with this incredible company after submitting my physics Ph.D. just a couple months ago. It was such a gamble to pursue a physics Ph.D. before pursuing a ballet career (that’s nine years of dorky physics life at Harvard and Oxford). Dance life has such an early expiration date, and I started late at 13, which is middle age in the dance world, so it was a big risk.

Other ongoing projects that I’m excited about are upcoming books, and guest speaking and guest dancing which keeps me guessing which country I’ll be visiting next.

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Tess Thomas is editor of Assembly, a digital publication and newsletter from Malala Fund. She loves books, cats and french fries.