One of the first artists in residence at the ArtLab, Dr. Merritt Moore combines two unique passions in her career: physics and ballet. Merritt graduated with a degree in physics from Harvard and went on to earn her PhD in Atomic and Laser Physics from the University of Oxford. She has been named to the “Forbes 30 Under 30” and is featured in "Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls," alongside Ada Lovelace and Oprah Winfrey. While in residence at the ArtLab, Merritt experimented to design, choreograph and program a dance duet between a robot and a human working with a multidisciplinary team which included collaborators from the Graduate School of Design. In this episode, Dr. Moore discusses her experiences of being a woman in STEMM fields, her aspirations to explore space and the challenges and rewards of bringing the arts and sciences together. We hope you join us in an inspiring conversation at the studio with Merritt and ArtLab director, Bree Edwards; Lori Lennon founder and CEO of Thinkubator Media, an organization focused on elevating the profiles of women in STEMM and co-host Harvard College sophomore Kristian Hardy.
Link to Merritt’s residency page on the ArtLab website: https://artlab.harvard.edu/Merritt-Moore
Link to Merritt’s personal website: http://physicsonpointe.com/
Link to Merritt’s instagram page: https://www.instagram.com/physicsonpointe/
Link to Kristian Hardy’s biography: https://artlab.harvard.edu/people/kristian-hardy
Link to Thinkubator Media: https://thinkubatormedia.com
Works in Progress is recorded and produced in the Mead Production Lab, located on the traditional territory of the Massachusetts people, the original inhabitants of what is now known as Boston and Cambridge. The show is hosted by Bree Edwards and Kristian Hardy, engineered by Kat Nakaji, edited by Jemma Byrne, and produced by the ArtLab at Harvard University with help from Thinkubator Media. Theme music by Kicktracks and Gvidon.
For more information about the show, the ArtLab, and the artists featured, visit artlab.harvard.edu. You can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram by searching ArtLab at Harvard.
Episode 2 Merritt Moore
[INTRO MUSIC PLAYING]
BREE EDWARDS: Welcome and thank you for joining me for Works In progress. A podcast about artistic research, inspiration, and collaboration. My name is Bree Edwards and I'm the co-host and the director of the ArtLab. In this podcast, we will speak with contemporary, visual, and performing artists, who are grappling with pressing issues and transforming ideas into action and art. The ArtLab is helping to create the conditions for the Arts to flourish at Harvard, and Works In Progress brings those artists and their ideas to you.
Dr. Merritt Moore is a physicist and a professional ballerina. A quantum ballerina. Whether in the physics lab or the ballet studio, Merritt is pushing the boundaries of scientific research through the arts. Merritt was one of the first artists to enter the ArtLab in 2019 and she returned in early 2020 for a longer interdisciplinary residency. In fact, Merritt was the last artist to be working in the ArtLab before Harvard University closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Merritt graduated from Harvard College and received her PhD in Atomic and Laser Physics from the University of Oxford. She has danced professionally with the Zurich Ballet, the Boston Ballet, the English National Ballet, and most recently the Norwegian National Ballet. Merritt is committed to developing research in those moments where art and science become entangled. And through doing this has formed new audiences and communities dedicated to this type of work. Through her interdisciplinary work, Merritt has connected with the community of scientists, creative interdisciplinary artists, and supporters of women in STEM fields.
She was one of 12 people selected by the BBC to undergo rigorous astronaut training and participate in the BBC Two show, “Astronauts: Do You Have What It Takes”. Merritt continues to pursue the dream of dancing and traveling to outer space. Hi, Merritt.
MERRITT MOORE: Hi.
BREE EDWARDS: In January 2020, you returned to the Art Lab to begin a research residency. This residency involved choreography, ballet, robotics, artificial intelligence. To bring all these fields and disciplines together you worked with faculty and students at the Graduate School of Design, with researchers and robotics from the School of Science and Engineering. Would you describe the question or inquiry that really started that research residency or guided your time while you were working here?
MERRITT MOORE: Can dance and choreography and the creativity of that kind of creation also be inspired and boosted by working with either AI or robot that moves in a different way. Can it inspire and just push me to a level that would be harder to do or would take much more time if it was like iteratively from human to human. Whereas I think that technology can show us a door and be like, wow. Yeah, let's try. I like that, it's different. So definitely was exploring that side of it.
BREE EDWARDS: So in 2019, when the ArtLab was still really a construction site, was your first site visit and during that time you and I talked a lot about this new ArtLab that was being built. You had had some influence as a student in helping the University to understand that students at Harvard were not one dimensional, that they were dancers and physicists and they needed a space that was multidimensional.
But also, we were looking for different models for organizing residencies at the ArtLab. It wasn't the traditional model of an artist alone in a studio. That we were going to borrow from other disciplines and other practices and sometimes that looks like union organizing or community organizing.
But really, for your residency we were talking a lot about borrowing or other research residencies borrowing from the science laboratory and the way in which particularly in higher ed and science labs, research is done. I saw you quickly build a team like that during your residency and I was hoping maybe you could help us understand how research happens in a scientific laboratory and how you use that model when you built your team here at the ArtLab.
MERRITT MOORE: Yeah. The team here was amazing. And I just feel so lucky because I brought Alice Williamson, who is a professional ballet dancer formerly with Berlin Ballet, which is a phenomenal company, one of the top companies in Europe. And then when I came here, we collaborated with Jose Luis Del Castilla Lopez and he was at the Graduate School of Design and expert in robots. And so he brought all of his expertise in robotics. Because we're working at another level of trying to make the robot interactive with the human.
So he brought all that expertise talked with Robert Howe over at the robotics lab to borrow their robot base. We then had to construct, with Kat here at the ArtLab, had to construct the bottom part of the base in order to make sure that the robot didn't topple over. And it started conversations over at the Physics Department as well in soft robotics. So the people were amazing and just all coming together.
And it was yes, similar in the sense of a physics lab where there are projects that everyone had a specific I think different problem they were trying to solve, but as a whole we had a big dream or goal that we were all striving for. But each of us had our different expertise that we're using to problem solve. And so yeah, it was just a very magical time.
BREE EDWARDS: There's still ripples of that residency that I feel that resonate here for us. We were meeting recently with a PhD student who is in the soft robotics lab and also a sculptor, and she remembered meeting you and your residency. So there's ways in which you built this team that was interdisciplinary, did the work here in the ArtLab, but then it continues to ripple.
I would love to talk about that rippling effect of where this work went after you left the ArtLab and then the pandemic hit. And how that changed what you were doing in ways that we never could have imagined in January and February when the pandemic then hit in March, April, May, June. So can you talk a little bit about where the robotic arm went after leaving the ArtLab and how it's changed during the pandemic.
MERRITT MOORE: I mean it was the timing of it is uncanny. So yeah. I'd finished my residence here, was back in London and then I was stuck in London. And—
BREE EDWARDS: Because the lockdown happened because of COVID-19. Yeah.
MERRITT MOORE: And was stuck there being like where are the next steps, what am I going to do. And that's when I was like, well, I was working with this robot like at least let's make that my dance partner. And so started just playing around during the pandemic with this robotic arm that was kindly lent by Universal Robots at first at my apartment, and then I found a vacated stage that I was able to just work in.
And was just giving myself that space to explore and test out different styles of dance. So I tested out like with ballet, and Michael Jackson moves, and hip hop, and salsa, just like how many different styles can we do with this robot. And at the same time continuing—
BREE EDWARDS: Wait, can I just jump in
MERRITT MOORE: Yeah.
BREE EDWARDS: Because that's actually a pretty radical move for a professional ballerina, you don't generally try out other dance forms, I would imagine, when you're an expert. How was that for you?
MERRITT MOORE: It was fun. It was nice. I think, I love all music and so it was like I get to then listen and create movement to all different styles and also get to learn variations of it. Yeah, with my pliés, I'm not doing Michael Jackson hip thrusts [LAUGHING]
BREE EDWARDS: Did you find that the robot was better suited to other dance forms than ballet?
MERRITT MOORE: It Is multi-talented. It's very multi-talented. But the fun thing about exploring different movement is being like, oh how can we make it actually more smooth. And how can we make that seem like more of a salsa move. And then I get to go back and talk to the roboticists or the engineers and say, what can we do to smooth that out. And they're like well, here. Let me send you this updated software, and implement it this way, and figure out that.
So what's nice is their questions and their ideas of how to improve it that then I can go back to the researchers and say, well this would be the dream. And they're like OK, let's try this and then try that. And so what's nice is I think it pushes the art form and the art that's like released in film but also behind the scenes in terms of the research with the engineers and figuring out how we can just make it better. Because I'm then asking questions that wouldn't be at the top of their list normally or wouldn't have been thought about. And so I think they get excited by hearing different problems that they can possibly problem solve around.
BREE EDWARDS: Yeah. I imagine you give them lots of new challenges to work on. And, I think in some ways the time commitment. It does make me realize that you are uniquely qualified to do this work. Coming from your time in the laboratory, which I know you've described to me as watching something take place over long periods of time, checking it in the middle of the night. And also, on the other hand, learning movements which you need to do over and over and over again until your body gets it. It sounds like you're bringing both of those operations, both sides of you, together.
MERRITT MOORE: Yes. And what I loved about it was, yeah, it took up both my passions, the physics side of like problem solving and like the dance side of expressing. But I also what I found that was important was I think that sometimes the people want to do art science collaborations but they are so far removed that the language barrier is very hard to get across the language barrier.
Whereas I found, and I think I will continue, it's like learning the programming myself of what is needed. Because only an artist is going to spend an hour to fix a one second of a thing, to make sure that the angle is correct, that the timing is correct. Whereas if I'm asking someone to do that, there's going to be a level of frustration and, it's just very, very difficult.
Or if I am going to collaborate at least having enough understanding of where are aspects that are incredibly difficult and an understanding enough of being like, oh well, let's try it this way because I think it would be easier. So, I think having that, knowing those languages, is really helpful.
BREE EDWARDS: It's critical. Even if you are communicating with collaborators. Even if you are working with someone who's going to do your coding. You need to understand the language at least to communicate with them what you hope to achieve. And I love that you're guided by inquiry play and questions, but now that you've been two years in this research I'm curious and I'm sure that they've changed dramatically since we started working together and that box arrived on the freight truck on the pallet, but I'm curious, what are your goals or are there any outcomes now for the work that you're doing with this robot and dance.
MERRITT MOORE: Well, it's definitely… so many different paths that it's taking me down and continues to take me down. So definitely creating bigger performances. Performed live this year on a huge stage in LA that was very nerve wrecking. And—
BREE EDWARDS: You performed with the robot on a stage?
MERRITT MOORE: Yeah Yeah, for the first time. And more live performances coming up. So that's a big one because with film I can do it over and over again. For a live show I can't. Yeah, it's like, OK, we hope it's really going to work. So that's super fun. Also different robots, I'm in Boston now to talk with a company and they have different software and getting to learn the robotics behind different robots and that for me is, I'm loving that side of it and—
BREE EDWARDS: Yeah. I imagine that none of the robots that you work with were designed to dance. [LAUGHTER]
MERRITT MOORE: No, no, none of them. None of them.
BREE EDWARDS: They were designed to move heavy things from one place to the other to help in industry. But I also know that you have a lofty perhaps aspiration to travel to outer space. Does that feel any closer now that you've begun dancing with robots?
MERRITT MOORE: So I definitely have that dream. And that's why I wanted to gain more robot expertise. So it's like, I want the robot expertise because I believe that's the future in space and here on Earth. And so, the more I get to learn with robots the better suited I am for that. But now I get to do it in a playful way. Whereas I think I'd be limited as well, now I get to learn about way more robots and all the intricacies behind that. And so in that sense, yeah I get to know the engineering side, the robotic side, and then on the dance side I also get to fulfill that passion of mine.
BREE EDWARDS: It's really nice to reconnect with you on the other side of this period in which we've all been somewhat internal and away from other people just the pandemic. And to me an observation is really that you are less split that your identities as a physicist and a ballerina have fused in a way that's so beautiful to see. I hope you feel that way too. They really, when you walked first into the art lab in 2019, they were like skis. They ran on parallel tracks but they couldn't cross. And it's just really amazing—
MERRITT MOORE: And now it's a snowboard! [LAUGHTER] It's now one thing.
BREE EDWARDS: I love that. And I love how you will influence robot makers to think a little bit differently about the users of the products they're designing too. And I can't wait to see your performances up on stage.
MERRITT MOORE: Oh, thank you.
BREE EDWARDS: Thank you Merritt.
MERRITT MOORE: Thank you, Bree.
BREE EDWARDS: When we return, Works In Progress we'll bring Lori Lennon, founder and CEO of the Thinkubator Media to speak with Merritt about the challenges of being a woman in STEM.
LORI LENNON: So Merritt, I'm so excited to talk with you. I work a lot with women in STEM and I'm so interested to hear more about your experiences with STEM, but then also your experiences with STEM and dance at the same time. But first I want us to talk about physics because there are very few women who have PhDs in Physics. So as a woman in STEM and in physics I'm so curious to hear about your experience going through the process and what that's like for you now.
MERRITT MOORE: I think I just grew up without feeling like there was an unequal playing field. It's totally cool. I think definitely from my parents brainwashing my sister and I. I think yeah, I didn't realize it at the time, but I definitely grew up… So I grew up in LA and my dad was an entertainment lawyer. And I think that the fact that we were in LA bombarded by the extreme versions of what society had for women, the ideas, I think my parents went to the other extreme of being like no TV in the house, no Barbies, no Disney movies.
And my dad would just constantly be like girls, because there was a sister and myself, girls like, girls are smarter than boys. But you have to be nice to them because they don't know it. And like I think guys hear it in there a little bit like, oh God. But I don't think they realize like as a female we're constantly being bombarded by whether it's TV, advertising, everything about the opposite. And so I think my parents went to an extreme to be like, we are going to try our best to at least minimize the effects of that.
So when I entered science STEM physics, I was like there's no…we’re playing on an equal playing field. Our brains aren't the same.
LORI LENNON: Sounds like a great foundation.
MERRITT MOORE: At least I wasn't particularly confident, it felt like I didn't have the experience. I'd had like one semester of physics before entering at Harvard. But it was like, my is the same as your brain. This will be fine. And so that, and then there weren't so many women in the classes. But the thing is in the physics world, everyone's very nice, and very supportive, at least I found.
I mean, there were some professors who I think had a belief that if they had women in their research group that it would change the dynamics, that the guys would be distracted and that they wouldn't be able to create good things in physics. And I don't know what to say. And so I just would avoid ever applying to be in that group. Because I can neither fight. Maybe I should have fought it but I was just like, I just can't be bothered. There are enough great physicists out there, male and female who are supportive of women so I was like I might as well just spend my energy in a nice environment with a good vibe.
LORI LENNON: I like that. So it's definitely like you would say a lot more the way that we talk about STEM and actually just pretty much like roles in life at an earlier age could make a difference.
MERRITT MOORE: Yeah. Yeah it's been somewhat helpful.
LORI LENNON: Yes.
MERRITT MOORE: I mean there's a lot more. I don't even know where to begin.
LORI LENNON: Yeah it is quite a mountain to overcome for sure. But I feel like it is a great first start. So I'm very curious also, because what's interesting is that physics is a very male dominated field and dance is predominantly female. So I'm curious to know what it's been like to navigate those spaces and how it's given you perspective. Either dance for Physics or the other way around.
MERRITT MOORE: Yeah. It's definitely been interesting in the sense that also in the dance world, predominantly women, but not in the director positions. So minority of female directors, very few, and very few female choreographers. But a slew of women where women female dancers are very replaceable and that if you're a male dancer you're the star… very revered, you get probably twice as much pay, all these things. Because they're so few, or they're fewer. So it's an interesting thing where you're like, huh, should be different, right?
LORI LENNON: Yeah.
MERRITT MOORE: But not really.
LORI LENNON: I'm so surprised to hear that. I didn't think about it in that way.
MERRITT MOORE: Yeah. And in that sense, so I actually found it way more difficult than the dance world or looking, watching dancers and the dance world because many have been in dance schools their whole life. There's very much this mentality is you just dance if you're going to be a dancer. There are very few companies out there, there's like one major company per country and then there's maybe two spots. It's very few but every year there are dancers that are graduating from all around the world wanting these two spots.
And so also there's this thing of you're very replaced. If the director doesn't like you, you get kicked out and there are 20 lined up right outside the door that would jump in that day. So that I think is a difficulty in the dance. And that's definitely more difficult, I think.
Whereas in the physics, I think it was me definitely also putting myself in places where I felt very comfortable. Where I was like they treat me equally. It was a good, great professors, great grad group, there was a lot of respect and a lot of-- yeah. I think people were encouraging so I felt like the dynamics were better in the physics world, which I think many people would be surprised about.
I mean there are difficulties where, like if the professor works 24/7 and is busy having admin throughout the day but so his office hours are going to be super late at night, it's trickier to navigate if you're a female. So that's the part that makes it a bit difficult I think, because those hours with the professor. So I think that's the part that gets complicated. But in terms of the dynamics it's way harder.
LORI LENNON: That's really interesting because I wouldn't expect that answer, especially-- but knowing the structure of the dance world I could see how maybe navigating physics might be a different maybe a more supportive experience, just because you're all working in labs and teams in a different type of way. So one thing that I've talked about a lot was like failure is a pathway to innovation. And so I'm curious about how has your two different worlds, the trying out for dance companies and maybe not getting the yes, all the time, and trying the experiments maybe not getting the result you want all the time. How have those worked together? Have they provided different perspective or even just further innovation in what you're doing.
MERRITT MOORE: I think it's alleviated my emotional… I get very passionate about my stuff. So what I found very helpful about pursuing two things like physics and dance is if I hit a plateau, plateaus are inevitable, but if you have one thing you're focused on that plateau becomes, feels very long. And I think for some people like spiral downwards and you're like, oh my God, this is terrible. And then you actually start to get worse rather than just plateau.
So what I found helpful was if I inevitably plateau in one area like dance, physics probably it means like maybe I'm too sore or maybe like my body hurts. So I'm sitting in the library for longer and I'm like, the Physics is coming along better. Or at least it's better than my bleeding toes.
It makes it feel much nicer. And then I'll hit a part where my brain just stops working, and it's like not getting it and I don't understand. But like dance is going better. I'm like, oh I really like the music. This is great. Or I didn't get an audition but I have an exam the next day so I can't really, I don't have time to think about that. Oh my God, I've got four problem sets that's due, I want to sleep. So in this nonsense I think it was a really good balance. And lesson learned because for instance, this year, I had a couple big things that I was going for and I tried a different strategy where I was like, OK, I'm going to cut back on things and just really focus on it.
But I think I did that too much. Where then the focus is too much on that. I was like, you know what, I should have kept more balls in the air. Not to an extreme like you want to be able to do your work well, but I think it just helps the unnecessary emotions that it's just human. But given a month's time you're like, oh actually it doesn't really matter. Yeah. It just speeds up that process of being like, it doesn't really matter now.
LORI LENNON: Yeah. And like that diversity of thought probably keeps momentum where if you were just focusing on one thing you may not have that additional push to keep you moving forward. Is that right? Yeah. And so when you do the dancing with the robot and stuff, did this kind of idea stem from like a moment where you were in this thought process limbo or how did you get there?
MERRITT MOORE: So amazing a lot of it here at the ArtLab! So right before, I had been dancing with Norwegian National Ballet I was doing the ballet dance, “Swan Lake”, and I was missing the lab. I had graduated two years before from PhD at Oxford. And I was just missing that aspect of it. And I met someone who was working with robots and I was like, hi. In between shows, and can I come hang out with the robot?
And I was just like I would love to explore this more. No idea if it's going to work. It's this fixed jointed thing that has no arms and no legs, it's used in industry not something you would be like, oh dance partner, really it's just not. But what was wonderful was then I got the residency here at the ArtLab. And I love that there was no pressure for performance, no pressure for exhibition afterwards, it was just space to research.
MERRITT MOORE: I was like this is—
LORI LENNON: It must be felt so good.
MERRITT MOORE: Felt so good. Where I was just like, great. Because this could royally fail, I have no idea what I'm doing, never worked, I'm like trying to figure out how to work with this robot and play around. But it was so nice because it gave that space just to play. In hindsight it has a great quote right like, ‘play is the highest form of research’. But I was like really feeling that. I was like, mhm. And then that was right before the pandemic. Then the pandemic hit and there was a moment where I was like, OK, all my dance stuff has been canceled. All my speaking stuff, what am I going to do. I did think I was like, huh, I was just playing with the robot.
LORI LENNON: Right.
MERRITT MOORE: And robots don't get COVID. [LAUGHTER] But all my human dance partners can't dance with them so. Yeah. So I had to at first really reach out to Universal Robot and be like hi… Random? I know. I'm a dancer with a physics background. Would love to, if you possibly had a robot for two weeks that you wanted to lend me. And I was like, I have an idea for it, I think it'll be good. And they were like, what? because in terms of market they're like, we work to sell robots. And we don't see a market for dancing robots. Not really.
But I think after a couple of months of me really messaging everyone in LinkedIn at that company, they're like OK, just make this girl—
LORI LENNON: Let’s get this lady a robot, please.
MERRITT MOORE: Yes, Oh my God. Get her out of our inboxes. And so they lent me the robot and then the two weeks I did, I think I was just playing around with, oh let's do more fun videos, social media videos. I just want to see if I can make this jointed thing have any semblance to a human dancer. And those videos went viral. Some got 14 million views and this and that. So then the robot company was, and it was hitting their… there was excitement in the robot community. They would reshare it on LinkedIn and it was giving the robot company Universal Robots, oh hey, yeah, some attention.
And they're like, oh you can keep the robot. And for me, it was great because I was like it's hitting the, you can be creative and work in tech, you can be a female and feminine and also work in tech. I think it also hits robots aren't that scary, that human machine interaction like they're not so scary. When it's this girl's doing Michael Jackson with the robot, how scary can it be? [LAUGHTER]
And so, a really huge shout out to Universal Robots. Thank you very much for being so supportive.
LORI LENNON: That's really great. Merritt, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me. This was really wonderful. Thank you.
MERRITT MOORE: Thank you.
BREE EDWARDS: After this short break, we'll be joined by Harvard College student and co-host Kristian Hardy. Kristian will examine and speak with Merritt about her work through the lens of a student at the University.
KRISTIAN HARDY: Hello, Merritt. We are so excited to have you here. Thank you so much for coming and I know you're going to share all your wonderful experiences and it's just very exciting.
MERRITT MOORE: Oh, thank you so much for having me.
KRISTIAN HARDY: Yes, thank you. So for listeners who are not aware, my name is Kristian. I'm a sophomore at Harvard College studying Theater, Dance, & Media and African-American studies. And I am a research fellow over the summer and still this semester at the Harvard ArtLab where we're putting this podcast to talk about process and research. And I specifically am delving into things that are relevant to the student experience and some other things that are like personal to me that I also really enjoy.
So to kick it just right off, to jump into it, you Merritt, have graduated from Harvard College and Oxford University, which are two of these very prestigious world renowned educational institutions. And as a current Harvard student I know just how competitive, and rigorous, and unique, attending one of these institutions can be. And I was wondering, as someone who's also very creative and an artist, the creative culture at Harvard is slowly changing but I think that there's still a long way to go. And I was wondering, how did you find ways to cultivate creativity while balancing the rigor of being both a Harvard student and an Oxford student.
MERRITT MOORE: Interesting question. So I think what was helpful was I would strive to do my best. But I think where I'm grateful to my younger self, I'm like oh man, one good thing you did, was I think I did alleviate the pressure that I had to accomplish anything. So I was in a field I was studying Physics at Harvard and the first Physics class I had was a semester my senior year of high school.
And so then to jump into Harvard, majoring in Physics was quite intense. In the fact that many of the students in the class were like physics olympiads and had won this and that. And I think I just told myself, I was like, look I really enjoy this. I love this so much. Not sure if I'm going to make it. But I'm going to give it everything I've got. And so every time I could even just stay in the room I gave myself a little pat on the back, I was like, I made it another semester.
And with dance I started dancing at 13 and was told that because I started so late that I would never make it professionally. So I think I just got used to being perhaps like the worst one in the room, but just enjoying. Being in the room and being like, OK, what am I going to improve. And getting so much joy in the little things. I was like OK, well, work on my feet today, and I'll work on this. And, of course, I had the dreams of… but people are like you won't make it professionally. And I don't know there was something deep inside me I was like, is that definitive? But what if?
And it was that aspect of it I think that I, just took off that pressure. And so I think if there was any pressure for me to have to be creative or have to make it, it would have been very challenging. I know for myself, I don't work well under pressure. So I've gone through tons of auditions but I'll rework it in my brain where I'm like, this is just practice for the next bigger audition.
I know very well, it's reassessing and being like, yeah I don't work well under pressure. Yeah. So we are going to reassess that. But in that sense, I think that it's challenging when there's so much pressure. So in the Physics world there's a lot of pressure if you're going to make it in academia you have to publish papers. And so if it's been done with three photons, you do it with four, and then you do it with five. But there's less willingness to erase, like start from the drawing board and start over. Because if you do that, there's a risk that you won't get any paper.
KRISTIAN HARDY: It was pretty perfect that you brought up people saying that you weren't going to be able to become a professional dancer because of how late you started or because of your unconventional academic paths in relation to the professional dance world. And on your Instagram, which is @physicsonpoint, if anyone wants to go check it out, you've shared a lot of stories about your training and how you've persevered even when people were saying those different things about you.
And so I don't know if this is going to be an extremely different answer but you may have touched on it a little bit before, but while you're in college how did you remain hopeful that you could do the things that you were aspiring to do and did you face any specific challenges with navigating physics and dance simultaneously.
MERRITT MOORE: Oh, yeah. Looking back I'm like that was for sure the hardest, those were the hardest years. I think there were two things that really were driving me. So one was, when I was dancing I often would run into older, generally moms, who had said, I regret having quit. I thought I was so bad and so I quit. And now I really regret it. And it happened a number of times where I was just like, huh, that's one thing you can't go back and change. And so in my head I was just like, I don't have really live with fear, regret, I want to at least look back and say Merritt, you gave your all. You really gave your all. And that was your limit.
If I never made it to a ballet company I was like, I just want to know that I gave it 1,000% that later on in life I can sit on a beach with a pina colada and be like, Merritt, you deserve this. You really gave it. And not kicking myself later. So I don't know why that just hit me. And then the second thing is, I'm very grateful to my mom who would say, look she's like look, I'm proud when you do well. She's like, of course.
But she's like, I'm most proud when you fail and you get back up. She's like, any success that you get whether it's a good grade on exam or an acceptance, people forget it and you're going to forget it in like a week. Things like that you just forget it. But she was like, that strength though, that inner strength and that ability to get back up when you've fallen hard, she's like that's what will take you for the rest of your life. That's going to make you invincible.
And so there was a lot of I think, if you fail that's fine! It's just that if you fail and you get back up, that's the reward. That's the thing that you're most proud of. And so that definitely kept me going. Because I did. I was doing my sophomore year here at Harvard doing physics, like computer science class, thermodynamics, everything. All four of my classes had a huge prompt set due every week! I was dying.
And then I was also flying to a different country during my Thanksgiving holiday or Memorial break auditioning, and I auditioned to 25 different companies. In rooms with people from Russia and China and…who had been going to a ballet school their entire lives. And I'm like I was just in my physics class--
KRISTIAN HARDY: I have p-sets!!
MERRITT MOORE: And I got into Zurich Ballet. My parents I think encouraged me… they really didn't want me to be a dancer… but they encouraged me to go to the auditions because they're like, oh look, you failed and you got back up and you went to another one. So that was I think what got me through.
So then when I actually got into a ballet company and I like told my dad, I was like, “Dad, dad I got into Boston Ballet or Zurich Ballet!” He's like, “I know, I heard the bad news.” [LAUGHTER]
MERRITT MOORE: He's like can I make sure that you go back to college next year.
KRISTIAN HARDY: So I think something that remains consistent throughout your academic career, your professional career, and treading this seemingly new path of being a ballerina and physicist at the same time is finding spaces for community. And you are the co-founder of SciArt Party which is a digital community that uplifts different people passionate about pursuing both the sciences and the arts. And so I was wondering, what inspired you to create SciArt party, and what are the benefits of having this digital community for scientists and artists.
MERRITT MOORE: Well I've always felt quite lonely actually in the journey of where either I was in the science world hiding the fact that I danced. I mean I think they knew, but they didn't know the extent. They didn't know I was up at like 5:00 AM training for four hours before coming to the lab, and then all the other craziness. So and then in the dance world they knew I studied physics but I think often I wouldn't put it on the resume and just they also they didn't know the extent.
And so because I always felt like, oh the science world would feel like I was being disloyal or like that I wasn't serious enough about science if I had another passion, and same with the dance world. It was like, oh then you don't really want to be a dancer. I don't know. But it was this, then you're not really serious about it mentality. So I just kept it quiet. And I felt that that part was lonely. It'd have been nice to be able to be passionate about both and have a community around that.
So during the pandemic I just noticed I think people were isolated and perhaps there was like a lack of hope because there was so much uncertainty. So I thought oh, it might be a nice time to meet and create what we call the SciArt party. Where people can come together who are interested in science and art. And they don't have to be interested in both maybe they're interested in… their main focus is science, but they have a curiosity about arts or vice versa.
And within the first like two days I think we had like 250 people sign up from like 46 different countries. And so then yeah that's when I had to call it, astronaut Chris Hadfield I was like hey, I think we need some I don't know what I'm going to do on this. But do you want to come and say hi, and maybe play some guitar? So he came on board. And it was amazing because we had these breakout rooms.
And afterwards, I think there was people were saying how much excitement and hope it gave. It just really boosted their energy like being able to be open and passionate about two things. And there were amazing collaborations where two partners we're working on creating 3D pointe shoes and then in their breakout room they connected with someone who had been principal dancer and the National Ballet in Amsterdam who was also working on bringing ballet to rural areas around the world.
And so they were able to… and the 3D pointe shoes are more durable. Because pointe shoes these days cost $80 and they last eight hours. And it's not very affordable. And so they were able to collaborate and also they were interested in space, so they brought their pointe shows up to the stratosphere because there was another scientist in the group. It was like one of those things where I'm like, this is exactly why we do this. You need the collaboration, you need that able to talk to people who are out of your field just to spark excitement and their amazing projects that happen from that and just great community.
KRISTIAN HARDY: That sounds really amazing. I think it is really important to have spaces where like that interdisciplinary thought process is encouraged. Because in some ways, I think that the world does a good job of allowing people to think lots of different ways, but I think it also still feels… maybe like there's like an inner voice in us that's oh this is like thing A and thing B and very compartmentalized. So it's exciting to see people mixing all the compartments up.
So for my very last question for you. I think that it is safe to say that many young people, especially young girls, look to you as a source of inspiration to show that women can have it all and we don't have to limit ourselves based off of society's expectations, or a school's expectations, or a ballet company, et cetera, et cetera. And so what does holding this role as an inspiration mean to you?
And I was wondering through your work with speaking to different students at different schools about pursuing STEM or pursuing the arts, what advice would you have for young people about following our dreams and charting paths that may not even be created yet? Because you've created your own life that I don't think anyone else has had which is very cool.
MERRITT MOORE: Thank you so much. I really appreciate that a lot, a lot. Because it makes me look back at a time when I was going through having a hard time in terms of finding motivation and I felt quite beat down. I think about being female, about being I think it was my late 20s, it was all of those parts where I just felt like, oh, this is oh. I don't know. And then I just thought OK, and I just made up a mantra for myself, which was, “I am free and I give hope.”
I think I was feeling so much pressure about what I needed to do or be and there was just a lot of stuff going on. That was just like, ugh. And I just felt like someone had a foot on my head and was just like pushing me down. And so I made up that mantra, which was like, “I am free and I give hope.” And it was like I'm free of all whatever expectations. I'm free to fail. I'm free to be me. I'm free to be kooky. I'm free, whatever. I'm free. And then the second one is, and I give hope. Which was my motivation inspiration. So it's very nice to hear that you're saying that--
KRISTIAN HARDY: You do.
MERRITT MOORE: Oh, thank you so much. I was like, even if I can't make it, I want to at least make one step, take a step in the direction that someone else can say, oh if she can get that far then I can do and better. I wanted people, they were even if you don't make it like to see, at least just take a step in that direction that people can be like, oh actually you can do both. And so that's yeah. I'm like oh. It just reminds me of a time when it wasn't. It was there was pretty tough. And I was like, how are you going to figure that out. I was like OK, I'm making a mantra for myself and we are to like repeat this daily.
And the mantra changes and then both. Yeah. So I think advice is just giving yourself the time. There's so much pressure to show brilliance right away, and then people are like if you're not showing brilliance right, they're like yeah maybe this isn't for you. And so I think it's important to give that time and space and just to explore. And I think, there was a little quote that it's like, “Nothing is impossible. Possible just takes time.” It's like, you really need to give things time and block off chunks of time to explore it.
And I always give myself three months at a point where I'm like, I want to quit, I am not improving this is the worst thing ever. I always say, OK for three months I'm going to give it everything I've got. From morning to night and I'm blocking off chunks of time and committing to this and we are going for it. And if after three months it's terrible? I am allowed to quit.
KRISTIAN HARDY: Yes.
MERRITT MOORE: The magic thing is I think there are plateaus and we just have to sit through that plateau. Which is often three months and it's just, committing to giving, putting in the time.
KRISTIAN HARDY: Well, thank you. That was a beautiful response and I know it inspired me so hopefully the listeners are able to take something from it. I want to thank you so much for coming and talking with me today and sharing a little bit about your life. And I'm really excited to continue to follow you and see all the wonderful things that you continue to contribute to the world. So thank you so much.
MERRITT MOORE: Oh, thank you.
BREE EDWARDS: Thank you for listening to Works In Progress, a production of the ArtLab at Harvard University. Located on the traditional territory of the Massachusetts people, the original inhabitants of what is now known as Boston and Cambridge. This podcast is recorded and produced in the Mead Production Lab. For more information about the show, the ArtLab, and the artist featured, visit artlab.harvard.edu. You can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram by searching ArtLab at Harvard. I hope you'll join us for the next episode.