March 9, 2020

PhD student's video submission wins Chemistry Category in Dance Your PhD Contest

Jackie Zorz blended art and science to choreograph "An Integrated Approach to Improving Efficiency in Microbial Bioenergy Systems"

Researching, writing, and defending a PhD is arguably one of the most serious experiences in academia.

Jackie Zorz, a fourth year PhD student working under the supervision of Dr. Marc Strous, decided to take on a brand new challenge – on top of the demands of a PhD – blending art and science together for the Dance Your PhD contest. Her video submission, “An integrated approach to improving efficiency in microbial bioenergy systems”, was this year's Chemistry Category winner.

Hosted by the journal Science, the contest challenges scientists to stretch their knowledge into the creative realm by presenting their research in an interpretive dance.

Zorz’s decision to enter the contest didn’t happen on a whim. She had been keeping an eye on the contest since its inception 12 years ago; at the time, she was an undergraduate student at a small university.  “One of my professors had attended a dance show we had put on,” Zorz tells. “She suggested – perhaps jokingly – to enter this competition one day. I thought the competition was a really cool idea, and a very unique and memorable way to communicate science. So when the time came when I was actually doing my PhD, I couldn’t really say no.”

Read a quick Q&A of Jackie’s experience in her own words, and watch her category-winning video below.

  1. Do you have a background in dance? Had you done anything like this before – integration of science and art?

    Yes, I started dancing when I was three years old, and took many classes including ballet, jazz and contemporary growing up. I also danced quite a bit during my undergraduate years, but have slowed down since. I have never really done anything like this competition before with the integration of science and art. It was definitely a first for me.
  2. How long did it take you to create your video start to finish (choreography to submission)?

    I had been thinking about some of the ideas behind the choreography for a long time. But the choreography and filming itself took a week of two-hour rehearsals, and then another week or so of trying to learn how to edit videos.
  3. How did you choose your research topic for your PhD?

    I have always been interested in the environment and the present issues it faces.  I believe that looking for potential solutions to these issues is an important direction for science. I am also very interested in biochemistry and microbiology, and had done my undergraduate and Masters degrees in these subjects. Studying the use of cyanobacteria as a potential source of renewable energy seemed like a natural blend of these research interests. 
  4. Can you describe your research and its potential applications?

    I work under the supervision of Dr. Marc Strous, and part of his research focuses on efficiently growing cyanobacteria (a blue-green algae, essentially a microscopic plant) for various uses including carbon capture and sequestration, commercial products, and renewable energy. Our main goals are to improve the efficiency and reduce costs in the cyanobacteria growth process, and my research focuses on tackling various aspects of this optimization, including determining how the cyanobacteria respond to different types and intensities of light. We also want to understand why certain aspects of our process work. For instance, we grow the cyanobacteria as a group of many microbes that we obtain from a natural, highly alkaline lake in British Columbia (BC). Most other groups growing cyanobacteria for these purposes grow them as a single species, but that often leads to frequent culture death and system collapse. Our “microbial communities” seem to grow better, and are more robust and resilient over time. A lot of my research is focused on the ecological mechanism behind this resiliency.
  5. What was one of your biggest take-aways from the contest experience?

    I’ve always found it really, really difficult to put myself out there, particularly in a creative endeavour. Throughout the whole process, I had to keep ignoring the self doubt and push myself to do it anyway, trusting that the final product would be worth it in the end.