Watch: Uma Nagendra '09 Dances Her Doctoral Biology Research to First Place

Science Magazine: Dance Your Ph.D. Winner Announced

When she isn't out in the forest gathering data for her Ph.D. in plant biology at the University of Georgia, Athens, Uma Nagendra ['09] spends a good deal of her time hanging upside down from a trapeze doing circus aerials. "It turns out that there are a lot of scientists doing it," she says. To combine the two halves of her life, she teamed up with her fellow aerialists to create the midair dance based on her scientific research. Nagendra's circus extravaganza is the overall winner of this year's “Dance Your Ph.D.” contest.

This is the seventh year of the contest—sponsored by Science, AAAS (publisher of Science), and HighWire Press—which challenges scientists around the world to explain their Ph.D. research in the most jargon-free medium of all: dance. Nagendra was one of four Ph.D. dances chosen by an expert panel of scientists and artists from this year's 12 finalists.

Nagendra's own home city of New Orleans, Louisiana, was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. As the human residents put their lives back together, she became curious about how the natural world recovers from disasters. After she became a biology Ph.D. student at the University of Georgia in 2011, she realized that she could answer this question herself by gathering data out in the field. But destructive events like Hurricane Katrina are rare on the timescale of a Ph.D. So Nagendra focused on a natural disaster that occurs far more frequently and does more localized damage: tornadoes.

Tornadoes are destructive events, ripping up the surface of Earth, crushing buildings, and tossing automobiles in their paths. And based on some models of climate change, they are likely to become more frequent and damaging. But according to a study of forest soil ecology, tornadoes also do some good—for trees, that is. It turns out that tree seedlings get a respite from certain parasitic fungi in a tornado’s aftermath, allowing them to flourish.

Nagendra graduated with a B.A. from Swarthmore College, where she majored in comparative literature and biology. She is currently a graduate student at the University of Georgia where she researches the impact of wind disturbances on plant-soil interaction in the Southern Appalachian Mountains.