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Mathematician Illustrates Braid Theory Through Aerial Dance

Nancy Scherich's performance, "The Representation of the Braid Groups," won top honors in the 2017 Dance Your Ph.D. contest. | Nancy Scherich

Nancy Scherich has wanted to be a mathematician ever since taking a calculus class at her local community college, but she has been a dancer for her entire life.

Until she discovered Science’s Dance Your Ph.D. contest, which annually invites scientists to use dance to display their Ph.D. research, she never thought she could combine her two interests.

Alongside friends from her dance group, Scherich performed a dance that explained her study of the braid groups. The performance, which blended aerial dance with contemporary dance, won Scherich top honors this year. “For the first time, all of my skills were being used,” she said. “It was really fulfilling.”

Scherich is completing a Ph.D. in the mathematical representation of braid groups at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her research focuses on the use of algebra to study geometric shapes, a field known as topology.

Braids exist in different forms in the physical universe, but their properties are difficult to study in their natural settings. Mathematicians use algebra to translate braids into neat arrays of data called matrices, which are easier to analyze. In Scherich’s performance, a group of dancers play braids undergoing the journey of translation, which is known as a representation.

Scherich found the contest to be as uniquely challenging as her research because it involves the study of highly abstract concepts.

“I had to think about how I would take this nonphysical thing and explain it in a physical way,” said Scherich.

The Dance Your Ph.D. contest was created by John Bohannon, a contributing correspondent for Science. The first contest, the only live performance, was held at the Campus Vienna Biocenter in Vienna, Austria in 2008. The building is home to the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology and the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology.

In the inaugural show, a dozen performers from the United States, Italy, England and Austria told the stories of their research through dance and Bohannon later reported on the event in a story published in Science.

“Then I started getting emails from around the world, asking when the next contest would be,” Bohannon said. “I had no such plans, but it became clear that I probably should.”

Rather than hosting another event, Bohannon decided to expand the contest to scientists all over the world, inviting them to share videos of their dances online.

Since then, more than 360 performances have been submitted. Because the dances involve multiple performers, Bohannon estimated that hundreds of scientists have participated in the contest. In 2011, Bohannon delivered a TEDx Talk about dance as an effective science communication tool.

Each year, the performances are evaluated by a panel of scientists and dancers. Judges score each dance based on its scientific and artistic merit. The panel also examines how the scientist has combined art and science to illustrate research.

Bohannon said high-scoring dances can stand alone as compelling pieces of art, but they also effectively communicate scientific information. “It combines those two things into one expression,” Bohannon said.

He noted that, rather than getting bogged down in the details of their work, choreographing a dance encourages scientists to focus on the essence of their ideas. Bohannon said the performances also demonstrate to viewers that complex scientific topics can be explained in many ways.

Twelve finalists competed for awards in four topical categories, each carrying a prize of $500. Scherich won in the physics category, and will receive an additional $500 for winning the overall contest. She has also won a trip to the 2018 AAAS Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas. Other winners were:

  • Natália Oliveira, of Brazil’s Federal University of Pernambuco, in the chemistry category for her performance that detailed the development of biosensors for forensic science. Oliveira also captured the Audience Favorite Award, in which visitors to the Science website watched the performances and submitted their choice.
  • Judit Pétervári, from Queen Mary University of London, in the social sciences category for exploring how expert and novice judges evaluate creative ideas.
  • Monica Moritsch, of the University of California, Santa Cruz, in the biology category for explaining the effect of sea star wasting syndrome on a tidal ecosystem through swing dancing.

Participating scientists invariably report having enjoyed and taken something intangible away from the experience, Bohannon said. Scherich, for instance, is already planning to produce more videos that use dance to explain mathematics to a wide audience. “This competition got the ball rolling and I felt really inspired by it,” she said.