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How growth in the arts made me a stronger science communicator and engineer.
By Nicole Xu | January 11, 2024
I won’t sugarcoat it: My first scientific presentation was a disaster.
It was January 2016, and before I even walked onstage, my stomach had twisted into knots. Sweat beaded on my forehead, and the more I tried to will it away, the more it dripped down my face.
“Let’s bring on the next speaker,” the session chair announced, and my lead feet carried me up the stairs to the stage. I squinted into the audience to see familiar faces, but the only thing I could see past the spotlights were cold silhouettes. As I spoke, I fidgeted in and out of the microphone’s range, knowing how bad it sounded but unable to stop, as though a novice puppeteer were pulling my strings. I stuttered and stumbled — all those meticulous notes, lost in translation.
After the longest 15 minutes of my life, I slunk back to my seat, pleading silently with the universe to never, ever make me speak publicly again. Wishful thinking, of course. That’s not how research works, or life. I’d have to give more talks. I’d have to present to more strangers.
On my way home, I thought about the calm, collected communicators I admired most. How could I make the leap from nervous wreck to skilled presenter? What was the secret scientific ingredient I was missing?
Ironically, it took something seemingly unscientific — dance — to help me find the answer.
When I was growing up, science and the arts seemed diametrically opposed: Black-and-white objectivity on one side, squishy subjectivity on the other. The “typical scientist” trope fit the dichotomy well: There he was (always a he!), the lone genius toiling in his lab, too busy for frivolous arts.
Try as I might, I didn’t fit the trope: I liked the arts, particularly dance. After an inspiring dance fitness class in college, I kept up the passion, attending classes and dreaming quietly of teaching them. “I never would have guessed you’re an engineer,” well-meaning people, seeing me in my workout gear, would say, oblivious to the sting.
For years, I kept my two worlds separate. I would choreograph songs in my head while walking home from the lab, and that’s about it. Who had hobbies in grad school anyway? Between research and coursework (and routine existential dread), I barely had time to sleep.
This changed in December 2016. One day after my dance class, I offhandedly asked my instructor how she started teaching dance. Her face lit up, and before I knew it, she had talked me into one-on-one training sessions and an expedited audition one month away.
After a few lessons, I performed a practice audition. It went about as well as my first conference presentation did, with the same stomach knots and shaking hands. I botched the choreography countless times.
But it also felt different from my first presentation. Well duh, I wasn’t perfect in my practice audition, I thought — I’ve never done it before! It felt easier to shrug off my errors and incorporate my instructor’s constructive feedback, and I dove into practice.
The day of my real audition class finally rolled around. I had sheepishly invited friends and colleagues to attend, including my Ph.D. advisor and lab mates. They all came, and I looked out onto a sea of strangers and familiar faces alike. My heart thumped with worry, but the music thumped louder, and I tried to reflect the audience’s energy back tenfold. I still made mistakes, but I shrugged them off, finishing strong and riding the adrenaline rush home.
Before I had even unlocked my door, an email from my dance instructor lit up my phone screen. “YOU’RE HIRED!” it read. The instructors had agreed unanimously to bring me onboard, no discussion needed. “I hope you find time for teaching, no matter what you do in your career,” she added.
I thought through the process. Screwing up in a dance audition had felt normal and forgivable — but screwing up during a conference presentation had felt like a mortal sin. Why had I judged myself so harshly for my presentation mistakes? Hadn’t both efforts gone equally terribly? And just as my practice audition had been a nightmare, practice presentations in the lab were torturous: I dragged myself into each conference room like I was walking up to the guillotine.
The disparity made no sense, and it dawned on me how much havoc the “lone genius” trope in science had wreaked in my mind. It left no room for errors or awkward laughter — no room for the messy fun of the learning process, including practice. The stakes felt high with my presentation because I had assumed a good scientist doesn’t make the kinds of mistakes that I did.
The more I taught my own dance classes, the more comfortable I felt with public speaking and presenting. Science and the arts, it turns out, have more in common than I had originally thought.
In fact, my background in science helped me structure a cardio dance class. How do I design a total-body workout in 16 songs? What’s the right formula for a routine that includes cardio, strength training, a warm-up and cool-down, and stretching, all without overexertion? What challenges, such as injuries, should I adapt to? So much in dance requires the methodical, logical planning I use every day in physics.
And I realized just how many lessons from my artistic life applied to my scientific life. A conference presentation is a performance — an exercise in speaking clearly, engaging individual audience members, energizing a crowd, and teaching effectively.
With a new mindset and a renewed commitment to the learning process, my presentations improved over time. And now, as a professor, I stress to my students that it’s okay to slip up, even under stakes that seem high — in front of important professors, or in front of an entire conference audience. The key is recovering in real time, which, as a dance instructor, I do in nearly every class. I’ve tripped. I’ve forgotten choreography. Once I swallowed a bug (but hey, so did Taylor Swift!). Seasoned professionals become seasoned by screwing up. Instead of criticizing myself, I’ve worked to find humor in my mistakes. It’s much easier to teach a dance move or give a talk when I’m having fun, and it’s much easier to improve when I don’t beat myself up for being human.
This lesson feels especially important for young women in physics, who often face pressure to bend to the norm of the (often male) “ideal” scientist. There is no such ideal, of course. It’s a myth, and it does damage.
Instead, if you’d like to do better science, try singing, dancing, or improv. Leap into a creative, artistic endeavor that takes you outside your comfort zone and lets you practice the art of learning, failing, and growing. Find a community outside of work that invigorates you.
And for the overachievers skeptical of devoting free time to ‘non-productive’ activities — a topic for another day — don’t forget that these creative efforts aren’t just fun. They’ll make you a stronger scientist, too.
So, won’t you try a dance class?
Nicole Xu is an assistant professor in mechanical engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder. An expanded version of this article will appear in Stories of Women in Fluids: Persevere, Survive, and Thrive, an anthology, supported by the APS Division of Fluid Dynamics, intended to inspire women early in their fluid dynamics careers.
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