On motivation, balance, and astronaut training with professional ballerina and quantum physicist, Merritt MooreFeatured

I spoke with @MerrittMoore, a ballet dancer and a quantum physicist. She has danced professionally with the Zurich Ballet, Boston Ballet, English National Ballet, and Norwegian National Ballet. She graduated with honors in physics from Harvard University and graduated with a PhD in Quantum Optics from Oxford University. She was also one of 12 candidates to undergo rigorous astronaut selection on BBC’s “Astronauts: Do you have what it takes?” She has been a featured guest speaker at events including the Forbes Women’s Summit in New York and the US Embassy’s Women in STEM Panel. She is featured in the New York Times Bestseller, Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. Merritt was on the list of Forbes 30 Under 30 in 2018. Merritt and I discussed the intersection of physics and dance, inspiration, balance, and astronaut training. Growing up, Merritt was not an extensive verbal communicator, but she found the language of math through physics and the language of movement through ballet, and these became the ways in which she enjoyed expressing herself and her creativity. She started dancing when she was 13 (which is considered middle aged in the dance world!), and she found physics when she was 17 or 18 at the end of high school (which is also relatively late). For a long time, she felt like she was one of the worst one in the room in both fields, but she was incredibly energized by the pursuit of a challenge. Then as she improved, she was interested in continuing to test her limits. On balancing physics and ballet, Merritt admits that it was a rewarding challenge. In fact for much of her dance career, Merritt was trying to quit ballet to be a “good” physicist. Others told her to stop allocating so much of her time to ballet and just focus on one pursuit. She indeed tried to quit ballet a number of times but each time, she became quite unhappy, and her energy levels dropped as did her grades. After a decade of cycles of quitting and returning, quitting and returning, she finally reached a point where she thought “why not? Why can’t I pursue both?” Over time, she has gradually embraced the fact that both physics and dance are very integrated into her life and has shown that she is able to not only excel but also find synergies in her pursuit of both fields. More specifically, Merritt shares more on how her careers in physics and ballet have been quite symbiotic and shown surprising overlaps. Because she started ballet late, she needed to maximize her efficiency in her practice, and physics was quite helpful in doing so. For example, she was able to apply Newton's three laws of motion, the principle of the center of mass, and projectile motion to her moves in the dance studio. Additionally, she was able to take a more scientific approach in learning ballet, instead of following a random trial and error process. Psychologically, it was incredibly helpful to pursue two disparate passions. When she saw diminishing marginal returns in her performance from her efforts in either dance or physics as she became more advanced in each, she was able to constructively distract herself by directing her attention and efforts to the other pursuit. Many people in both fields experience burnout from seeing their abilities plateau when they want to see immediate improvement. But Merritt was able to redirect her focus in physics, when she plateaued in ballet and vice versa, which preserved her stamina across both fields. In spite of these many benefits of pursuing her passions at the highest levels, there are of course times when it has been very challenging both physically and psychologically. In these times, Merritt has made a mantra for herself: “I am free and I give hope.” In this way, she tells herself that she is free to be herself and free to make mistakes, taking the pressure of societal expectations away. The hope aspect inspires her through each seemingly impossible task, and she hopes it will spark similar positivity for others as well. In 2017, Merritt was featured as a contestant on BBC’s Astronauts and found several new challenges and a different style of work. Astronaut training involved getting her open water scuba diving license, hovering a helicopter, and learning Russian to use a complex simulator in Germany to dock the Soyuz to the International Space Station. She also discovered the unique pressure astronauts face from their position as a representative, in many ways, of the hopes and dreams of an entire country, and the high monetary risks of mistakes (the International Space Station cost $150 billion to build!). Being an astronaut is surprisingly immensely team oriented. Merritt realized that much of her training thus far has been quite individual. She did not go to ballet school so she did most of her training independently. Similarly, with physics, she ran her own experiments, so her work there was largely independent as well. Astronauts seem quite lonely but in reality, as Merritt found, there is a substantial amount of teamwork involved from others on their mission and primarily people on the ground, and she loved this collaborative aspect. Outside of work, Merritt finds balance and peace through stretching (which she finds quite meditative), yoga, taking walks, and listening to music and audio books. She also travels and finds peace in transition. Airports, she notes, are a great place to reboot. For a moment, you can start with a blank slate for planning, reflecting, and journaling before the next destination. On advice for other young women, Merritt underscores the importance of being open to feedback and finding mentors. People at the top of any field have lots of wisdom, so try to tap into this whenever possible. In ballet, Merritt learned a lot just from speaking with principal dancers and understanding how they got to where they are. In physics, she would observe the approaches top physicists used to find solutions to problems. Moreover, even outside of your immediate field, Merritt notes, there is so much wisdom to be gained. For example, her approach to choreography was dramatically improved after long discussions with a prominent architect about his creative process in designing buildings. To learn more about Merritt Moore, she is on Instagram/Twitter @physicsonpointe.
ellenflanagan's profile thumbnail
Incredible and inspiring. I love the fluidity between fields and the intersection between both worlds, each world informing the other. Thank you.
jessicali's profile thumbnail
Yes, so enjoyed speaking with Merritt!
MerrittMoore's profile thumbnail
Thank you so much Jessica and hello Elpha community! You are a rockstar Jessica and I'm so honored!
jessicali's profile thumbnail
Thank you so much! It was so fun working with you!
gracedesant's profile thumbnail
This is inspiring and validating to read. I'm a performing artist as well (studied dance for many years, am a choreographer, singer and run a small dance company.) Yet, through all of these artistic endeavors, it has been hard to make a living doing art because of how much our current society invalidates and devalues our artistic professions in favor for more traditional fields, and mostly fails to see the intersectionality between art & science. For me personally, I've made the decision to transition into UX Design as a way to augment and work in tandem with my artistic career because the arts that we are involved absolutely translate, feed and inspire the scientific or technologic work that we due.Thank you for sharing all this - it's always great to learn of fellow performers who balance and mesh different professions together while still pursuing their dreams!
jessicali's profile thumbnail
This is so awesome, thank you for sharing your story and so glad this resonated!
jikajika's profile thumbnail
Amazeballs!I graduated college with a Mechanical Engineering Technology degree with a minor in Dance.Honestly, college did not help me flame the fires of building with my hands and emotion through movement.Quite the opposite actually.Though even when I'm on the cusp of 40 I still want to pursue the juxtaposition of science and dance - and be a human, being in those two realms.This was hella inspiring and plain DOPE to read!Thanks so much for this writeup Jessica!
jessicali's profile thumbnail
Thank you so much for sharing, that is awesome!