Student Spotlight: Notes from a Dancing Scientist

Laura Briggs performing their solo, Backtalk. Photo by Lori Teague.

By: Laura Briggs (EC ’19)

Most college students are used to answering the age-old question, “So what are you majoring in?” But people aren’t usually expecting the response, “I’m majoring in chemistry and dance!” Usually, they assume one of two things: 1) I want to dance, but my parents made me take up the chemistry major for job security, or 2) I’m serious about science, and the dance major is “just for fun”. These assumptions are almost always followed by the sarcastic question, “So what are you going to do with that?”

In reality, my parents did not force me to major in chemistry, and I take my dance classes just as seriously as my science classes. And as for the question about my future, I intend to pursue careers in both research science and professional dance. I don’t see why I have to choose between one and the other. At Emory, there are many students who are drawn to both science and the arts, but they struggle with prioritizing their passions and making decisions about what to pursue. My response is that life is much too short to give up something you love, so I have decided not to give up anything I love. My two fields inform each other, forgive each other, and infuse my life with balance, inspiration, and excitement.

You might find it hard to believe, but being a dancer makes me a better scientist. There are many skills that scientists need, but aren’t taught in their undergraduate science classes. Communication skills, interpersonal skills, creative thinking, and versatility are all great qualifications for graduate school, but most science classes reinforce lecture-style learning, independent work, rote memorization, and specificity.

Dance, on the other hand, exercises a completely different part of the brain and a much more widespread skill set. Communication is a vital part of being a dancer, whether you are teaching dance, writing a reflection paper, collaborating with other artists, or just talking about your experience in class. An embodied, experiential discipline built on empathy, dance teaches you to understand other people, be flexible (both physically and mentally), and think outside the box. These skills transfer directly from the studio into the science lab; thanks to my dance major, I am comfortable collaborating, asking for help, communicating my work, and trying new things.

Of course, there are other benefits to having two disparate lives on campus. Dance is a solace from the rigor of academia, too. Nobody will tell you that being a chemistry major is easy, especially when juggling extracurricular responsibilities, lab work, and taking care of my adorable pet lizard Ada Lovelace. But when I step into the studio for dance class every day, I am encouraged to leave everything else at the door and focus on myself, my body, and my artistry. It’s self-indulgent in a healthy and necessary way. After I leave the studio, sweaty and satisfied, I can return to the chemistry building refreshed and ready to study again.

The biggest takeaway from my time as a double-major is that no one should have to compromise one passion for the sake of pursuing another. In fact, having multiple equally-demanding facets to your life can be rich and exciting. So next time someone tells you that they’re majoring in chemistry and dance, or environmental science and religion, or computer science and classics, don’t raise your eyebrows! Instead, celebrate the fact that we go to a school where you can do both, and encourage those students to keep being interesting, pushing boundaries, and seeking connections.

Laura Briggs is a junior double-majoring in Chemistry and Dance & Movement Studies. Laura works in the Weinert lab in the Chemistry Department, trying to understand the chemical mechanisms behind plant pathogens. They are a Woodruff Scholar, the founder of the Emory Women in STEM House, and a nominee for the Goldwater Scholarship. Laura’s hobbies include caring for their pet lizard, Ada Lovelace. After college, Laura wants to pursue a Ph.D in biochemistry with a focus on plant chemistry.