UCSB Math Grad Student Wins Dance Your PhD Competition

Nancy Scherich Brought Together Her Two Favorite Disciplines

I have steered clear of math since the day I was no longer required to take it in high school. As a humanities major in college, I dove headfirst into the right-brain, artsy stereotype of someone who wants nothing to do with numbers and dies on the inside a little each time tax season rolls around. But Nancy Scherich — UCSB graduate student, mathematician extraordinaire, and this year’s winner of Science magazine’s worldwide Dance Your PhD competition — might change my digit-ditching ways. Having grown up studying music, dance, and the whole arts shebang, Scherich came to a crossroads when deciding what to pursue and ultimately chose math. Some years later, with a fully cemented notion that her dancing days were over, Scherich found a “natural fit” in the competition that slaps together two disciplines that on the surface seem like repelling magnets: science and dance.

Scherich’s winning video, Representations of the Braid Groups, “translated” her PhD research into a beautifully shot aerial dance that’s almost hypnotic in its spiraling turns and in-sync movement, a process that Scherich said has pushed her toward a career in what she calls “math outreach.” In a recent interview with the Independent, she said, “The goal of [my next] video is to dance an entire [mathematical] proof …. So by the end of the video you should understand why something is true.”

Scherich gets that this is no small task, considering so many suffer from math phobia, but is determined to change the way we think about the subject — she mockingly demands, “People are going to like math again, dang it!”

Unwilling to make art that sacrifices the quality of her math, or math that sacrifices the quality of her art, Scherich hopes eventually to teach math through the medium of dance. It’s an idea that could be the beginning of a whole new math mindset and perhaps even genre of art. So get out your leotards and your calculators, everyone: It’s time to math-dance.

View Nancy Scherich’s winning video here.

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