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USU Doctoral Candidate Explains Science through Artistic Expression

Thursday, Sep. 26, 2013

dancers in the video Prune to Wild created by USU doctoral student Zack Brym

In a video created for the national 2013 AAAS 'Dance Your Ph.D.' contest, USU doctoral student Zack Brym illustrates the challenges of achieving management balance in fruit orchards.

USU doctoral student Zack Brym

In scene from his contest video, Brym, a doctoral candidate in USU's Department of Biology and the USU Ecology Center, ponders fruit sizes and pruning methods.

As any science communicator knows, explaining the details of complex, esoteric scientific research to a lay audience can be a real challenge. But Utah State University biologist Zack Brym may be on to something. Why not share your passion in a more familiar and relatable way?

To that end, Brym, a doctoral candidate working with biology faculty mentor Morgan Ernest in USU’s Department of Biology and the USU Ecology Center, entered the 2013 “Dance Your Ph.D.” contest. Sponsored by the American Academy for the Advancement of Science and Gonzo Labs, the annual contest, which seeks videos from entrants, offers cash prizes in varied scientific disciplines and a chance for recognition in Science, the AAAS academic journal.

“As the contest guidelines explain, the object of this project is explain your science in a way that engages people and gets them excited about the questions you’re pursuing,” says Brym, who received an honorable mention in the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellow search in 2011.

Among his current research projects, Brym is pursuing agroecology, the interdisciplinary study of agricultural systems using ecological principles. With faculty member Brent Black of USU’s Department of Plants, Soils and Climate, the doctoral student is exploring possibilities of using a continental scale fruit tree experiment to test the response of yield efficiency among genetic varieties and environmental gradients.

No stranger to the arts, the avid drummer enlisted help interpreting his research from USU adjunct faculty member and videographer Andy Lorimer, USU employee and choreographer Stephanie White, a member of the Cache Valley Civic Ballet; along with USU’s Aggie Marching Band Drumline, in the creation of his video entry, “Prune to Wild.”

“What does (the video) mean?” Brym asks. “I hope much of the basic science or motivation behind my research will be made clear through the artistry of the video.”

Early on, he and his artistic collaborators chose to rely on dance and filming, rather than captions and other forms of text, to relay the video’s core scientific messages.

“The aim (of my research) is to develop orchard management recommendations to conserve resources and interact with the orchard systems more like forests,” Brym says. “In the video, ballet dancers depict trees and the drummers are fruit growers.”

Set to a contemporary instrumental soundtrack performed by keyboardist Alex Garbarino, guitarist D.J. Ferguson and Brym on drums, Prune to Wild portrays an apple orchard’s struggle to find balance between the vulnerability of the wild and the overbearing management of domestication. White’s otherworldly choreography conveys suspenseful tension between the pruning drummers and arboreal dancers, as the story builds to a tender pas de deux featuring Brym with wife and fellow scientist Maria Brym, in the role of “Naturally Pruned Tree.”

Contest winners will be selected through a two-phase process by a panel of judges assembled by the AAAS. However, the USU community will have the opportunity to cheer Brym and his collaborators on through a popular online vote, following the contest’s Oct. 1 entry deadline, at the contest website.

Related links:

Contact: Zack Brym,

Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, 435-797-3517,

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