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Monday, May 1, 2017

Student Highlight: Sydney Duncan

Sydney Duncan, Physics & Dance, University of Utah
(Left photo by Sydney's father. Right photo by Luke Isley)

Sydney Duncan is a native of Dallas, where she trained in classical ballet at Tuzer Ballet and Texas Ballet Theatre School. At Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, she studied saxophone, voice, and dance. Duncan then attended University of Utah, where she double majored in ballet and physics and performed with Utah Ballet. She has attended summer intensives at American Ballet Theatre, Ballet West, Atlanta Ballet, LINES Ballet, Ailey, Oklahoma City Ballet, Dallas Ballet Dance Theatre, and Hubbard Street. She completed Astrophysics REUs at University of Oklahoma and University of Chicago. At the University of Utah she conducted research on the chemical abundances of globular clusters with Dr. Inese Ivans. She is now dancing professionally in New York City.

Nicole Cabrera Salazar*: What made you decide to double major in ballet and physics?

Sydney Duncan: I started dancing at 3, and around 13 I saw an African American dancer on stage and I told my mom I wanted to be a professional dancer, so I started a more rigorous professional training in classical ballet. I went to a math and science elementary, middle, and high school magnet program. In my junior year I took my first physics class and it was incredible. I first learned kinematics and I thought, this is dance! I already knew about torque through ballet, and I applied what I learned in physics to dance, and vice versa. My parents told me I couldn’t dance forever, and encouraged me to look at physics college programs. From the time I was little, I always wanted to be an astronaut, so I decided to major in astrophysics. I looked for college programs that had both physics and ballet as majors. It really narrowed my choices down! I wanted a top tier dance program at a research university, which narrowed it down to 3 schools and finally decided on Utah.

Nicole: Both ballet and physics require hard work and dedication; did taking both majors slow down your progress toward graduation?

Sydney: Yes! I did a lot of work for both. The summer before my freshman year of college, I did a summer intensive training program for ballet. Every semester after that I took more than a full course load, around 23 credits a semester including summers. I don’t recommend doing that, especially because upper level physics courses require more time to learn the material. I took more than 90 classes/200 credits in the course of 4 and a half years.

Nicole: I heard that you also did research in 3 different astronomy fields! When did you find time to do that?

Sydney: I did two REUs, one at the University of Oklahoma on Dwarf galaxies, learning about N-body simulations. That was tough because it was my first research experience and it was very computer heavy. My second REU was at the University of Chicago doing experimental cosmology, and making parts for a cryogenic refrigerator for the South Pole Telescope Group. My last year of school I did spectroscopic research with my professor at Utah on chemical abundances of globular clusters. I would do this on top of training at various ballet companies at their summer intensives. I was always doing something!

Nicole: As someone who participated in summer REU programs, I’m amazed that you were able to do this while also fitting in summer ballet training. How did you manage it?

Sydney: To be quite honest, I put a lot of pressure on myself and had trouble taking time for myself and sleeping enough. I am just now learning how to sleep again! I would advise other people not to do it this way. Being sleep deprived for 4 years takes a toll on your physical and mental health. I was an angrier person, it affected my class attendance, and I did not go home to see my family very much. There was one whole calendar year I saw them for only two weeks. I would go directly from school to training to my REU and back again. I managed because I was doing what I loved, but there was definitely a lot of sacrifices.

Nicole: Where does your motivation come from? Do you have mentors you look up to?

Sydney: My determination comes from my family. My grandfather was a chemist who finished his degree at UC Berkeley after being rejected by other schools because of his skin color, at a time when it was unheard of for people like him to get a chemistry degree. His wife was a math teacher, and my dad became an electrical engineer. My mom’s dad is an amazing architect, and she became one of the few black female licensed architects in Texas. I have some role models in physics, but nothing compared to how my family has influenced me. I truly do wish I did have a female physics mentor in college, but it just didn't happen for me.

Nicole: What kind of hardships did you face in ballet and physics?

Sydney: I was told that ballet isn’t for black people, because no artistic director is going to cast you due to the way your body develops. It really hurt, but I could not get this dream out of my head so I was not going to stop. With physics, I never really felt welcome until I joined the Women in Physics group at Utah. People thought I was way too ambitious, that I wouldn’t be able to do Physics because I’m not smart enough, that I should change my major. My dad was very encouraging, he told me I could do whatever I wanted, he was my rock.

Nicole: What advice would you give to women who look up to you and want to follow your path?

Sydney: I want all the women out there to know there were times when I was ready to quit, but things started changing when I started believing in myself. I still struggled, I felt imposter syndrome, but I persisted. Find a female mentor who will encourage you, reach out to people and form study groups, find other women you can relate to. My time in undergrad would have been so much easier if I could have done this more.

Nicole: Now that your undergrad days are over, what’s next for you?

Sydney: On top of sleeping regularly, I’m focused on dancing for now. Physics will always be there, but you can only dance professionally for so long because your knees only have so much cartilage. I’ve moved to New York City, which has always been my dream. I go to auditions every single day; sometimes you get cut just from your resume, but you learn how not to take it seriously. I’ve just booked a show, and I’m considering a contract from a ballet company, which is every dancer’s dream!

You can follow Sydney on social media:
Twitter: @Syd_Duncan
Instagram: @SydneyDuncanOnEm
*Nicole Cabrera Salazar is a recent astronomy PhD graduate from Georgia State University. She is also a member of the Committee for the Status of Minorities in Astronomy (CSMA).

This interview is part of a series of posts on the Astronomy In Color blog dedicated to recognizing outstanding achievements by astronomers of color. Feel free to contact Jorge Moreno (csmachairmoreno AT if you know any other person of color in astronomy who should be featured.

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