I wanted to enter the Dance Your PhD contest since before I was accepted into a PhD program! Although never formally trained in dance, I did dance on my high school’s team and generally enjoyed the process. So Dance Your PhD seemed totally up my alley combining art and science.
I had the vision for my dance mapped out in the second year of my PhD program. While preparing an NSF DDIG and really thinking about both my hypotheses and the conservation implications of my work, the dance simply story-boarded out in my mind. Specifically, I would combine my dissertation chapters on American black bear (Ursus americanus) phylogeography with its implications for wildlife trade. Black bears experience a low amount of trade for traditional Asian medicine where the gallbladders and paws are thought to be medicinally useful. By understanding genetic diversity throughout the range (as informed by the evolution of bear lineages), we can predict where an illegal sample came from, since the sample should have a genetic signature similar to its natal population. Even though I had the story mapped out, I didn’t want to dance my hypothses, I wanted to dance my data. So I sat on my dance until this year as I’m finishing up my dissertation.
Knowing the parts of my dissertation I wanted to convey led easily into the story of the interpretive dance. In the first scene, a bear (that’s me) is illegally hunted. In the second scene, I show the results of the phylogeography study. The appearance of the bears on screen signifies their speciation in North America. Over time the species expands its range and population size, all the while accumulating genetic variation which you can see slow emerge between the dancers in the east (stage right) and west (stage left). The bears are pushed south into glacial refugia. The group dance is meant to convey how even though genetic differentiation has already accumulated, they are still a single species. As the third scene begins, we come back to our illegally hunted bear who dances her genetic signature to try to find which broad region she belongs. After that broad lineage is identified, she is finally able to find her natal area within the whole species range.
The title of the piece, “No Way Home,” is a reference to Dave Wilcove’s book of the same name. The book describes multiple ways in which human induced landscape changes have affected animal migration routes. I use the title two ways. First, to recognize the impact of ongoing habitat fragmentation in limiting dispersal and gene flow in many species, not just bears. Second, to tie in the use of natal origin identification for wildlife trade application; although we can use genetics in this way, an illegally harvested animal no longer contributes it’s genes to the population. Therefore, through habitat fragmentation or illegal harvest, there is, “No Way Home” for many animals.
I first heard “Wapsuk,” by Kathleen Edwards when she opened for Bon Iver in 2011. She told the audience the story of being an artist invited on an expedition to Wapsuk National Park in Manitoba, Canada where she saw polar bears (Ursus maritimus) for the first time. Immediately, I sat up and took note, because it was a song about bears! Two hours later as I walked to the car (after an amazing set by Bon Iver), I started singing Wapsuk, and that’s when I knew that it HAD to be the song for my Dance Your PhD submission.
A final note about my dance: I dedicated it to the staff (past, present, and future) of the UNCG All Arts and Sciences Camp and specifically to camp’s long time Executive Director Bob Prout. That was the summer camp I attended then worked at when I was younger. Camp was my absolutely favorite thing/place/week that I looked forward to all year long. The dedication is just my tiny way of saying thank you for all you do to create fun and formative experiences for us art and science nerds. I can not fully express how very much camp means to me, still to this day.