From “For Carolyn Hall ’09, Mixing Science and the Arts is a Thrilling Dance” on Stony Brook News by Elliot Olshansky on April 15, 2019
Early on in her training as a dancer, Carolyn Hall ’09 had to learn to be able to pivot quickly.
Who knew it would have such valuable application as a life skill?
Hall, who holds an MS in Marine Science from Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (SoMAS), conducts her own historical marine ecology research, has been part of a team studying the ecosystem of the Gulf of Maine under Adrian Jordaan of the University of Massachusetts, works as the research assistant and fact-checker to New York Times best-selling author Paul Greenberg, and leads workshops for the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook. As if that weren’t enough, she continues to perform as a contemporary dancer, having recently completed a residency on Governors Island with Works on Water and performed in a New York Times-featured piece by choreographer Carrie Ahern. A winner of the New York Dance and Performance “Bessie” Award for performance in 2002, she also serves on the boards of the Interdisciplinary Laboratory for Art Nature and Dance (iLAND) and Culture Push.
Hall recently took a few moments to breathe at her home in Brooklyn – where she lives with her husband, actor Kelly AuCoin (best known as “Dollar” Bill Stearn on Billions and Pastor Tim on The Americans) – and discuss her multifaceted career.
The best place to start is probably your work with the Alda Center. Tell us a bit about the kinds of programs you run and what you’re doing.
This is my fourth year teaching at the Alda Center, and officially, I’m a message design or “Distilling Your Message” instructor. I work with graduate students, post-graduates, and some professors, taking them through a five-week course where they work on talking about their science and their research in a way that’s for audiences who aren’t academic, and aren’t in their specialized field. It’s really fun, actually. We work on one-minute pitches or talks, conversations, storytelling, get them in front of a camera to be interviewed by journalists, and we do writing exercises, too. It’s pretty intense, but it’s only once a week. I also work with the Alda Center and go on the road to various organizations and institutions – other academic institutions, or NASA and other government institutions – and work with professionals and faculty members and undergraduates and graduates, and we do the same thing, but we team teach with acting improvisation instructors as well.
And because the Alda MethodTM is based on Alan Alda’s experience as an actor and as host of Scientific American Frontiers, does it help that you approach this with an arts background of your own?
That’s certainly what drew me to it. I thought, “I have both halves!” I wasn’t trained in acting improvisation, but in dance improvisation; I’ve done a lot, and still do. So yes, I think having a performance background made me interested in communicating my research differently. I wanted to be able to talk to the random people who came up while I was in the field, asking what I was doing. I wanted to be able to explain it to them. I wanted that audience to have access to what I was doing, because I was excited about it. It felt very connected to being a dancer, being a performer, and wanting your audience to come along with you. Even though dance doesn’t necessarily use verbal language, there’s a desire to have the audience physically or tangibly follow you and have some sort of interpretation of it that you’ve helped communicate to them.
Obviously, you had already been here for your graduate degree, but what was your path from graduating and doing the research that you’ve been working on to coming back here to work with the Alda Center?
Christine O’Connell was one of the designing founders who worked with Alan for the Alda Center. We were colleagues at SoMAS and friends already, and she was going through the initial sessions with Alan when he was testing out the improv and “Distilling the Message” exercises in tandem. For years, she was saying, “You should do this, you should do this, you should do this. You’re a scientist and a dancer, a scientist and an artist.” I finally found myself with a window of time where I said, “I could go explore and train in this.” As soon as I did, it felt like something I had to do.
You mentioned the difference between improvising as a dancer and as an actor. Your husband is something of an “in-house consultant,” so to speak, when it comes to acting. Are there things you work on where you find you want an actor’s perspective and you consult Kelly?
Kelly does know the kind of acting exercises we use – he’s done them at one point or another – but honestly, I consult the improv instructors who are part of the Alda Center, because they know how we’re applying it to working with scientists and working in communication beyond acting.
Although, Kelly finds it all really fascinating, and I do use him as a sounding board when I’m trying to get some of my scientific concepts out to a more general audience. I try things out on him and he’ll say, “Ah, I don’t know if I quite understand that.”
Working in the Alda Center, and being married to a prominent actor yourself, have you ever had the opportunity to bring them together?
Because I only work with the Alda Center part-time, I haven’t had that many interactions with Alan, but I did bring Kelly to a mixer in New York City, and I got to introduce them. There were a lot of people around, but they had a nice warm, brief chat about acting. Alan is one of those spectacular actors that Kelly has watched and admired since he was a child – so meeting him was meeting one of those icons of the acting world. It was really fun for them to meet, and I was just standing there beaming at the fact that this was happening, because Kelly was really excited to meet him, and Alan was very warm. He’s a very nice and approachable person, and they definitely connected over acting and the theatre world.
At the Alda Center, you bring your arts background into science, but you also have this other component to your career, where you bring your science background into the arts. That seems like a very different process. How does it work?
It’s different with each organization and each project. I think that the artist brain and the science brain work very similarly. There’s experimentation, there’s failure, and there are many trials. There’s an innate curiosity in your own practice or research, and also in the world around you, whether it’s a specific microscopic world, or a world of movement, or a world of sculpture, or whatever the art may be. The practices of being a scientist and being an artist are not so dissimilar, and what’s interesting is that when approaching a scientific topic from an artist’s point of view, there’s a different way of questioning, a way of representing the topic that, to me, is rather freeing: “What does it feel like?” That gives a different lens of looking at the science. So, you might start digging into deeper details of the science from an angle you didn’t expect, which is fascinating.
You talked a little bit about the process that brought you to the Alda Center. Can you tell us a bit more about the journey that led you to this amazingly varied career?
I grew up in Los Angeles, and although I wasn’t right on the coast, I loved going to the beach and I loved tide pools. So, I’d say that tide pools were my first fascination having to do with marine life and the marine environment, but I didn’t think I was going to pursue that at a young age. When I went to Oberlin College as an undergraduate, I was more interested in human physiology. I was already a dancer, and ran track, and they fit very nicely hand in hand, and so my degree was in biology with a focus on human physiology. Then, because it’s easier to pursue a career in dance when you’re young than when you’re older, I did work in physical therapy for a number of years, but I was becoming a professional dancer, in LA first, and then in New York.
After ten years of that, I was missing digging into the science side of my brain, and I spoke to professors at UC Santa Cruz, because their marine biology program was in my mind from high school as the place to go. One of them said, “You know, there’s a really good marine science program in New York.” I said, “Really?” They said, “Yeah, at Stony Brook.” I had not heard of it, but that’s because on the East Coast, I wasn’t exploring that as a real option.
I went out to Stony Brook and took a couple of upper-level undergraduate marine science courses at SoMAS, and I loved them both for very different reasons, and I thought, “this is what I’m going to do.” However, I still felt like I needed a little more exposure, so I did an internship at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla. That was the first place where I thought, “This is what being in the field is. This is what being among the public doing marine research is. This is what a full-time commitment to research that’s on computers, that’s on equipment, that’s talking to your colleagues, in the field, on a boat, is about,” and I was hooked, no pun intended. When I applied for grad school and hoped to get in, I wrote about that internship experience, and realized that sort of public interaction with research was fascinating to me.
I thought I would stop dancing, and for the first semester of graduate school, I couldn’t dance, because it was so intense, and I’d been out of school for so long that my learning curve was super-steep. But then, the dancing side of my brain still needed to be attended to, so I do both.
Having been here as a grad student, gone out to do your research, and then come back to work with the Alda Center, are there things you appreciate about Stony Brook now that you didn’t necessarily see as a student?
I think what’s most impactful about teaching a course that sees scientific researchers from many departments at Stony Brook is realizing what a deep community of scientists and research and study there is at Stony Brook. Sometimes, there are misconceptions about state schools and what they can offer in terms of excellence in various departments. Some schools are known for business, or known for chemistry, but I feel like at Stony Brook, not only is there this incredible medical school – which I think we are known for – but the rigorous pursuit of all the different sciences that I see reflected in the graduate students and the postdocs, is really impressive, and I feel lucky that I get to talk to such a really great cross-section of them through this scientific communication class.
Obviously, there’s something that you bring to these students when you work with them in these communication classes. How much do you find yourself taking back with you in terms of learning about their research?
That’s the beauty of having the Alda Center at Stony Brook. Because I am working with these scientists, these engineers, these medical students, who are gaining expertise in these fields – and they’re learning how to talk about it – they have to break down what their research is. They are so skilled at saying what their work is academically. I don’t understand all the words or all the processes, but because I get to work with them on understanding it, so that someone like me, who’s not in their field can understand it, I actually can walk away with an understanding: “Wow, you’re really working on trying to understand why people with schizophrenia often hear voices. Where’s that coming from? If we can figure out where it’s coming from in the brain, then maybe we can find a way to reduce it or help control it better.” I can walk away with an understanding of what cutting-edge research these students and their labs and their professors are working on, and that’s exciting.
You talk about the two sides of your brain that need attention, the science side and the dance side. What would you say to current students who may have their own seemingly divergent passions about how you manage to serve both, indulge both, and use both in your career?
There are so many multidisciplinary folks out there now, or hybrids, and I think more and more collaborations between scientists and people in other disciplines are happening. I encourage students to entertain their hybrid interests, partly because it makes them relatable to more audiences, but I also think that it’s important to remember that as a scientist you have all these different sides of you that are equally rich.
How do you have a career that way? That’s a tricky thing. If you’re going to try to do what I do, I’m freelance everything, but I have other friends who are full-time researchers and they create theatre pieces, solo shows, that aren’t about science…or maybe they are, but not necessarily. It is possible. You just have to figure out what your main goal is, what you want from each discipline. I think that’s the key. That’s the question to ask yourself, but it is possible.