Interview with Quantum Physicist and Ballerina Dr. Merritt Moore

This week, we caught up with the incredible “Quantum Ballerina” Dr. Merritt Moore — a quantum physicist and professional ballerina who is taking the world by storm.

Merritt graduated with Magna Cum Laude Honors in Physics from Harvard and recently graduated with a PhD in Atomic and Laser Physics from the University of Oxford. At the same time, her professional ballet career has seen her dance with the Zurich Ballet, Boston Ballet, English National Ballet, and Norwegian National Ballet.

This 30 Under 30 Forbes winner has also appeared in BBC’s Astronauts: Do You Have What It Takes? and features in the Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls book. Here’s her story:

Newnham: What were you like growing up? And what first drew you to dance and physics?
Bardega: I was pretty quiet and introverted (I still am pretty introverted to be honest). I have a quiet intensity when I’m focused, and I’ve always been kind.

I have always found movement and mathematics much more natural than words and requiring a similar mindset. I didn’t speak much as a kid (I didn’t say a word till about three), so when I discovered dance at 13 years-old, I felt such freedom to have finally found a means to express myself in a way that felt most natural to me. Similarly, I gravitated towards physics because I found a freedom in the math and was inspired by the mysteries of the universe.

Newnham: There is a push to get more girls studying STEM subjects — how do you think we get more interested in subjects like Physics?
Moore: I find it frustrating the way physics is taught. It starts with incredibly boring topics like ramps and pulleys, then puts a lot of emphasis on memorising and regurgitating facts. It’s incredibly isolating and there is an assumption that students should learn on their own from a textbook. I think there would be many more incredible female scientists if it was taught in a more collaborative way that emphasised imagination and creativity. That’s why I started SASters (Science-Art-Sisters on Instagram @sasters_squad) to encourage young girls to think and visualise science in a different ,more creative way.

Newnham: You have degrees from Harvard and Oxford — what excites you about quantum physics? And what drew you to both dance and physics?
Moore: Quantum physics is mysterious and exciting — the more I learn, the more it boggles my mind and I love it! I can’t wait to see where quantum technology takes us.

I believe gratitude and appreciation are crucial for excelling in any craft. Having a disparate career/passion helps create appreciation because it keeps things in perspective and makes one really appreciate what a privilege it is to have a chance to do either. For instance when I’m exhausted in the dance studio, there is nothing more that I would want to do than to curl up with a physics book in a library, and when I’m cooped up reading all day, it keeps me hungry to get back into the dance studio and try new movement.

Newnham: In life, we are often told to follow one path in order to excel but you have gone against the grain and proved otherwise. How do you manage the workload?
Moore: It’s definitely hard work! One year for instance, I was performing La Bayadere and double shows of Nutcracker with Boston Ballet (47 total in a month!). I took that fall semester off because it was too much to juggle classes an performances, but I was still working at the Harvard physics lab. In between shows I would throw off the pointe shoes, rub the make up off and jump in a cab. Once at the lab, I had to got dressed in full body gear, booties, double gloves, face mask, hair mask, goggles, etc, work on the experiment for a couple hours then strip all the lab gear off and then put on makeup and false eyelashes hurriedly in the back of a bouncy cab ride, jump into my tutu and make it just in time before the curtains would go up.

This would all repeat in the evening and I would work in the lab till 2am. Because I had double shows the next day, I would often stretch with my leg above my head while depositing metal on my little experimental samples. Only at the end of the month did the security guard point out that there were CCTV cameras everywhere when I thought I was all alone stretching!

Newnham: Haha. What have been some highs and lows of your dual career so far?
Moore: After three very intense weeks at the lab (literally spending some nights on the lab sofa), I finally go the lab results that no one had ever seen before. I was ecstatic and beyond excited! Probably the most exciting day of my life.

I’ve technically had so many “lows”, “failures” and “rejections” (probably way more than I can count), but I always treat them as training. I never let anything keep me upset for more than an hour before getting back up and going full steam ahead on to the next project.

Newnham: What is next for you?
Moore: My plan is to always pursue both physics and dance! I am motivated to give hope and prove that it is possible to pursue both at the highest level, and to push against stereotypes and prejudices. I love being inspired by incredible artists, so I want to continue collaborating with the best musicians and artists around the world to create concerts, galas, and film. This month I’ll be pursuing research at the new Harvard ArtLab and then I’ll be dancing La Bayadere with Norwegian National Ballet for a couple months. Later I want to pursue more physics research and then become an astronaut.

Newnham: We are big fans of inspirational quotes here. What is your favourite one and why?
Moore: “Nothing is impossible. Possible just takes time.” I loved this quote when I read it in high school because it ended a lot of doubts and insecurities for me. This quote gives me assurance that I don’t need to worry whether or not my hopes and dreams are possible, because they are 100% possible. The main question was whether or not I was willing to put in the time. So when pursuing your passions, just know that it will take a lot of hard work but when there’s a will, there’s always a way!

Newnham: If you could go back in time, what advice — if any — would you offer a younger Merritt?
Moore: I would remind Merritt of Newton’s third law of motion: “For every action, there is equal and opposite reaction” because I view it as a great motto for life. Everything you do inevitably circles back. All the work and intention you put into a dream will pay off (not always in the way you think — but in a way which is just as exciting and rewarding).

Merritt Website / Instagram / Twitter / Facebook

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