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From the Spring 2018 Edition of Discovery

Dancing My PhD

Zack Brym (PhD’16, Ecology) reflects on the intersection of art and science

Photo courtesy Zack Brym

While earning his doctorate in ecology at USU, Zachary T. ‘Zack’ Brym entered the 2013 national Dance Your Ph.D.contest sponsored by the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, the journal Science and Gonzo Labs. Brym enlisted help from USU adjunct faculty member and videographer Andy Lorimer, USU staffer and Cache Valley Civic Ballet choreographer Stephanie White, local dancers and USU’s Aggie Marching Band Drumline to create Prune to Wild.

The six-minute video, online at, depicts challenges Brym encountered while conducting an interdisciplinary study, with guidance from faculty mentors Morgan Ernest and Brent Black, of an agricultural system using ecological principles.

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.”

A still image from Brym's video. Dancers depict apple trees.

A still image from Brym’s video. Dancers depict apple trees.

While his entry didn’t place, it garnered local accolades and proved a meaningful, memorable endeavor for all involved. The College of Science caught up with Brym, who joined the faculty of the University of Florida’s Department of Agronomy and Tropical Research and Education Center in Homestead as assistant professorof agroecology in 2016:

Q) Had you ever attempted a project like this before and what were some of the biggest challenges?

A) This project was a unique experience for me. I had extensive training in live performance arts (e.g. musical theater, marching band) and did some videography for the marching band. But I was never the character in a video that wasn’t just a recording of a live performance. I didn’t have any experience or perception in piecing together scenes or clips. In that way, the videographer really put me out of my comfort zone during filming. I envisioned the video and crafted the storyline like a live show, but we kept having to stop in the middle of passages to reshoot at different angles. This speaks to a broader challenge of working in a truly transdisciplinary team. I knew the most about my science and drumming. The choreographer and videographer sometimes had different ideas about interpreting my science or the best way to communicate that in the video.

Q) What did you gain from the project? Were there parallels in making the video and pursuing a scientific research project?

A) Overcoming the transdisciplinary challenge and letting the others guide the parts of the show that they were expert in was a real learning opportunity for me that I have used again and again in the development and implementation of science. The hope is always that you come up with something better than you would on your own. I also gained a lot of perspective on science communication. When we decided to make this video with no text or other content clues besides the ‘dancing’, I had to distill my research into a message that could be communicated just through the choreography and actions in the video.

A still image from Brym’s video, Prune to Wild. Dancers depict apple trees; drummers are pruning farmers.

A still image from Brym’s video, Prune to Wild. Dancers depict apple trees; drummers are pruning farmers.

Q) Drumming (and music) are obviously among your passions. Does music influence your pursuit of science and, if so, how?

A) Sure does. I had a career choice to make between music and biology, when going to college. I decided to keep my first favorite activity as my hobby, while making my second favorite thing my career. I guess I could say that music influences my pursuit of science. I would also say, then, that the process of writing, performing, and listening to music influences the way that I do science. I see science as a creative process just like music. To be the best scientist I can be, I have to exercise all the parts of my brain. So, some days I do a lot of technical reading and cognitive brain games and other days I listen to a lot of music and think of all of the out-of-the-box ways I can design my experiments and communicate about my research.

Q) What were some of the highlights of your USU experience?

A) Wow, there are so many. I will name three:
1. I crafted my PhD program in agroecology through the USU Ecology Center. The freedom I got to put together my own research program and mentoring committee gave me the training to land my dream job in agroecology.
2. I say USU may be the only university, where I could get my PhD related to agriculture and keep a farm within a 5-mile radius of campus. I wanted to learn how to walk, while I was learning how to talk. We, my wife and I, tried to be as self-sufficient as possible and did a pretty good job of feeding ourselves and earning enough at market to feed the animals. On two acres, we gardened and kept chickens, ducks, a turkey, a lamb and a goat. It was a LOT of hard work and really transformed my understanding of agriculture.
3. The community I found at USU was epically supportive and close-knit. This includes my grad student peers, the faculty in the Ecology Center and Biology Department and the community of farmers and foodies, who I came to love and respect during my time at USU.

Q) What are you pursuing now in research and teaching?

A) I have a research and extension position at the Tropical Research and Education Center at the University of Florida representing the Department of Agronomy. I study agroecology from the perspective of crop physiology and plant community ecology. The extension part of my job means that I work directly with farmers and the public to communicate with them and get them engaged in my work. Agroecology is a new enough discipline that the beginnings of my program are mostly about awareness and developing a few basic educational and research programs to describe my discipline and approach to science. Agroecology seeks to understand the productivity, diversity and resilience of agricultural systems in the context of surrounding areas. Agroecology is a process to understanding and improving agriculture to sustain productivity, conserve natural resources, and promote social responsibility. I am just setting up my first experiment, where I am using cover crops, the simplest cropping system I know, to understand the impacts of the surrounding environment on plant physiology

By Mary-Ann Muffoletto

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