Particle Physics, Physics, Space, Spectacular Scientists

Spectacular Scientists: Merritt Moore

Today is the International Day for Women and Girls in Science- AKA Women In Science Day! To celebrate this, I was lucky enough to interview Dr Merritt Moore, who is a professional ballerina, as well as being an inspirational physicist! She has researched at world renowned universities Oxford and Harvard, danced with the Norwegian, Zurich, and English National Ballet, as well as being featured in Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, Forbes 30 under 30, and now Never Trust An Atom! You may also recognise her from her appearance on the 2017 BBC series, “Astronauts: Do You Have What It Takes?”, which gave a valuable insight into the skills required to become an astronaut!

Merritt doing standing splits in front of an iconic Oxford building
Merritt studied for her PhD at Oxford (image via the Telegraph)

You have recently been appointed Artist in Residence at the Harvard Art Lab- What does this involve?

So my artist residency what it involves is creating a duet between a human and an industrial robot, which will hopefully later be choreographed by AI. The robot is from Universal Robotics and my collaborator is Alice Williamson. At the moment we are working on the artistic component of can we make this cold steel rod emotive and human and emotional and creative- all of the senses that it would if it were two humans dancing together.

Merritt dancing (bent over like a swan en pointe) with the Robot arm
Dancing with the Robot as a Resident at the Harvard Art Lab

How did you get to your current position?

In terms of my journey, I started dancing at 13, which is quite late, and I started physics when I was 17, which is also quite late, and even though I was the worst one in the room when I started, I continued to pursue these two fields separately. I just continued them because I loved it so much, but I never really merged the two (ballet and physics) together. Then two years ago I finished my PhD in Physics and there was a moment where I just realised everyone had been saying I could only do one or the other, and after 10 years of having pursued both separately, I just thought why can’t I try to integrate them together? So now to be at the Art Lab with my pointe shoes and physics hat? It’s such a dream!

How did you decide what you wanted to research?

So when I was at Harvard I studied condensed matter, and I then heard that it was better known for its graduate program, so I tried to join one even though I was an undergrad! So I went and met a professor (Charlie Markus) who was in condensed matter and he let me join the group, where I took part in a letter project there. Then when I was applying to Grad School I wanted to know more about other fields of physics so I applied for Quantum Optics and I went to the University of Oxford under the guidance of Professor Ian Walmsley. I had tried Particle Physics before these two but I found the groups too large- I prefer being in a lab by myself, so I gravitated towards Quantum Optics/Condensed Matter where your lab may be large and social but your projects are smaller.

Merritt in a physics lab with her pointe shoes and a lab coat
Dr Moore did her PhD in Quantum Optics at the University of Oxford! (image via the telegraph)

What’s the favourite thing you have researched over your career?

I’ve always loved how bizarre and intriguing the quantum phenomena were: how even though we don’t know how it works, we are still building all this technology from it! 

What is the best thing about your job? What’s the hardest?

The best thing about being in a PhD is that it’s ‘never ever land’: you’re constantly playing with ideas or equipment, creating things and testing them out. It’s based on your own schedule and you get so much freedom- it’s absolutely wonderful. And now that I have merged it with dance, I definitely don’t have a typical job: it’s about what I’m creating and it’s so much fun. 

The hardest part- I think its generally the same for everyone- is putting in hours and hours of time for days and years, without knowing if it is going to work out in the end. Especially with grad school is that there is no manual: how you graduate from a PhD is by doing something that no one has ever done before, so no one has instructions on how to do it. In that way, it’s incredibly daunting! That uncertainty and doubt, I find it incredibly difficult. And so that I have to figure out ways to overcome the anxieties that come with them, and making sure that I always give 100% so I won’t regret anything. Nothing is impossible, it just takes time!

Have you always been interested in science? 

As a kid, I always loved puzzles and math, and my dad would take my out stargazing and ask the big questions like “what’s dark energy” and “is there life out there”. This taught me to be curious and led by wanting to know the answers to these big questions! So when I discovered physics I was like oh my god it’s amazing! Constant puzzles and fixing equations and putting things together to answer the unknown questions!

Who were your inspirations growing up, and are they different now?

When I was growing up I wasn’t allowed to have TV or barbies or fashion magazines or even fairytales in the house, so I was told stories about Queen Elizabeth, or Joan of Arc, so these very strong female figures were my inspirations when I was quite young. In Physics I was always inspired by Richard Feynman and Einstein because of how they used creativity and imagination to approach problems and understand these complex ideas in the most simple of terms. They were able to communicate and understand it in such a fundamental way so I was always really inspired by them. 

Do you have a favourite female scientist from your field? (Past or Present)

Ah Melissa Franklin! She was the first female tenured female professor at Harvard, and she such a force of nature and cares so much about her students. Another great female scientist is Suchitra Sebastian at Cambridge! She’s so funny and is doing great work, and is also part of theatre programmes there!

What was it like being on the BBC astronaut program?

It changed my life! It was the most phenomenal experience I have ever gone through, and I am so incredibly grateful: It really raised the bar for what I want to achieve and the type of person I want to be. There was so much I learned from it- It was incredible! But so intense. They take your phone and your computer and you’re sort of lead wherever they lead you, whether that’s to fly a helicopter or take your own blood! It was intense, but it sparked my dream to go to the moon, and ever since then I have been pursuing that!

the twelve astronaut candidates dressed in blue overalls against a stormy sky
The astronaut candidates from the BBC program (via BBC)

If given the chance, would you want to go to space for real? Did going through the process on TV reveal anything that surprised you? 

Oh yes! I definitely want to go to the moon; I’m currently working on getting my piloting license, and finger’s crossed NASA applications open up! There’s a rumour that they might open up this spring, so I will apply and we’ll see. what surprised me from the program was how much video games would have helped me in the process! 

If you could make everyone in the world know one thing about your research, what would it be?

Quantum Physics is so cool! 

What are your top tips for aspiring scientists?

My top tip for aspiring scientists is: Take your time! Don’t get overwhelmed: some people will seem to get it right away, but everyone learns things differently, and over different lengths of time. I’ve found that certain textbooks were written with a certain type of mindset- I’ve never been taught be a female, and all the textbooks were written by males. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I think that I think differently to other women as well! Just take your time, and I would try to take a chapter and pretend to reteach it, but in a way that I understood. It took me more time, but repetition and practice make it more intuitive: every hour that you put in does pay off! Nowadays we are expected to be perfect straight away, but if you don’t it really doesn’t matter, just take your time!

Astronaut Candidate, Dancer, Physicist!

Thank you so much, Merritt! It was a pleasure to interview and I am sure your story and tips will be useful to everyone who reads this blog- you are such as inspiration!

Compliation of images within the piece

All images via Merritt’s instagram page unless stated.

You can find more blog posts featuring Spectacular Scientists like Dr Moore here, and last year’s Women In Science Day Post here.


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