When Glenna Clifton began studying ballet at the age of 3, she had no way of knowing that her love for dance would eventually lead her to study biomechanics as part of a PhD program in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, one of 12 programs in the Harvard Integrated Life Sciences network. And even as she continued to pursue her passion, she probably never expected that it would somehow lead her to turkeys.
Clifton, who double majored in physics and dance with a minor in chemistry as an undergraduate at Barnard College, has always been fascinated by the physics of movement. Now a second-year PhD student in Andrew Biewener’s lab, she studies the terrestrial locomotion of animals — wild turkeys, at the moment — seeking to understand how they are able to generate the forces necessary to navigate their environments.
As a ballerina who has spent much of her life performing, studying, and choreographing ballet, Clifton knows what it means to be attuned to the human body’s movements. In fact, she continues to dance with the Harvard Ballet Company even as she researches the muscles, gaits, limbs, and movements of non-human animals in her PhD work. “I’ve always found it interesting to have both views: a visceral understanding of how the body’s muscles and tendons function, as well as a grasp of the science behind biomechanics,” she says.
For her dissertation work, Clifton is interested in investigating the Western grebe and the Clark’s grebe, two species of birds that are able to run across the surface of water. “They perform extravagant pair bonding displays,” she explains. “At the height of their mating ritual, they’ll run across water, slapping the water surface with their feet.” Clifton hopes to study how these species create the forces necessary for this kind of locomotion and how such adaptations are related to their morphology and evolution.
Although she admits that balancing her scientific pursuits with her ballet training has been difficult at times, she wouldn’t have it any other way. “Having a split personality between science and dance is immensely satisfying for me. Ballet provides a creative outlet, but math and science satisfy my intellectual curiosity. It’s always been a challenge to integrate both of these aspects of my life, but I enjoy having this diversity of activities.”
Clifton cites her ballet experience as something that has directly influenced the way she approaches her doctoral studies and her research. “Being able to convey your work to individuals who aren’t necessarily physicists or biologists is a crucial part of conducting research. And through performing, dance has taught me not just how to reach an audience, but the importance of being enthusiastic and passionate about what I’m doing, which has had a big impact on my teaching.”
Clifton, who is currently a teaching fellow for Life Sciences 2 Evolutionary Human Physiology and Anatomy, knew immediately that Harvard was the right fit for her. The fact that she visited campus during a winter snowstorm did not deter her from wanting to live and work in Cambridge. “After talking to many members of the lab and the other scientists working here, I saw how diverse OEB is, and I couldn’t see myself anywhere else.”
Another draw was Harvard’s Concord Field Station (CFS), where Clifton conducts much of her research. The facility, located in Bedford, Massachusetts, is affiliated with the Museum of Comparative Zoology and OEB; it supports physiological and biomechanical research that explores how animals operate in their natural environment. For her most recent project, Clifton ran trials to study the motor control of limb swing in wild turkeys running at various speeds. “A typical day at the [field station] might include getting dressed up in scrubs and running a turkey on a treadmill and training it. Of course, there’s also a lot of working on a computer and analyzing data,” Clifton says.
But the hands-on work is key. By studying animals up close, Clifton and her fellow CFS researchers can better understand how a range of species respond to obstacles and maneuver through different conditions. “Animals have evolved a remarkable diversity of movement strategies. By studying the mechanisms in which organisms produce and use forces, we can begin addressing general questions of how and why they move like they do.”
Story Credit: Joanna Grossman