The light changes and the molecules shift, rearranging into new forms, changing functions. Savannah Reach, like any researcher, takes note of the change and reacts as well—only the molecules aren’t under a microscope or in a laboratory. Instead they are on an auditorium stage, embodied in the dancers’ lithe motions and strong poses, and Reach is not just observing the movement but part of it.
“A lot of people wouldn’t think so, but there are actually a lot of connections between chemistry and dance,” Reach said.
As a chemistry and dance double major, 20-year-old Reach is actively pursuing these connections at Alabama, and her research with Dr. Silas Blackstock is the perfect bridge. Reach and Blackstock work on organic electron transfer experiments, wherein molecules are exposed to various forms of radiation and then change shape. The research is a fundamental step in creating mechanical molecular structures to be used as gates, fasteners and much more in the world of nanotechnology. To demonstrate how the molecules are rearranged, Reach employed a different kind of movement: dance.
“I choreographed dance moves to represent the shape changes we’re doing in lab,” she said. “It was really cool, and the dancers loved it.”
Reach realizes that her chosen fields of study may puzzle other people but knows that they have more in common than at first glance.
“I feel like some people…don’t think that [dance] is as serious of a major, and so a lot of my peers think, ‘Oh because she’s a dance major, she must not be as smart,’” she said. “But…you have to be intelligent to be a dancer. It takes the same dedication and hardworking attitude to be a dancer as it does for chemistry.”
While Reach finds the common ground easily, she says finding time to get everything done is harder.
“Usually at the beginning of the semester I go through the ‘Oh my word, I cannot do this,’ fitting it all into my schedule,” she said. “It usually takes about a month to get it all figured out, usually after all the auditions are over, which is quite stressful at the beginning.”
Reach estimates that in an average work week, she spends 25 hours in class, 35 studying, 15 in rehearsals, around four attending professors’ office hours and still manages to devote 40 to an average of eight hours of sleep every night.
“It’s been a little bit harder in college to balance school with dance,” she said. “I stay very organized, and I never wait until the last minute.”
It’s not just class-time taking up so much of her schedule. In both chemistry and dance, she is involved in extra-curricular activities, like researching with Blackstock and performing for Dance Alabama and Alabama Repertory Dance Theater. Dance majors perform in three shows per semester, and she is not only dancing in them but choreographing for them as well. On top of that, she and her sister help teach dance at conventions from New York to California assisting choreography superstars like Travis Wall and Justin Giles. She is also the treasurer of the chemistry honor society on campus and the ACS National Committee. Reach says that with all of her commitments, it takes effort to stay afloat.
“When we’re flying, I study, when we’re driving, I study,” she said. “I feel like I’m constantly studying.”
Reach doesn’t feel like she’s alone, though. She relies on professors and faculty in both of her worlds for support.
“I feel like I have team Savannah in chemistry and dance, and I have these people who support me,” she said. “I think it’s really special.”
Blackstock is part of “Team Savannah” in the chemistry department and agrees that Reach’s passions are integrally linked.
“There is a symbiotic relationship between arts and sciences,” he said, “and creativity is the bridge between the two.”
Other members of chemistry’s “Team Savannah” support her passion for dance by attending her performances, even though they may not be familiar with the subject.
“One of my professors came to a show and was like ‘Is it like football? Is this like your only time, your prime time to do this?’” she said. “I was like ‘Not really’, but it’s nice that they care.”
Reach says “Team Savannah” in the dance department is one of the reasons she is pursuing both dance and chemistry. Reach was originally going to major in only chemistry, but her freshman year, departmental director Cornelius Carter gave her the Foundation Scholarship in dance, an award usually reserved for upperclassmen. Reach says the scholarship made her realize that she could do both.
Morgan Bryant, Reach’s friend and fellow dance major, says that while the professors support Reach, they don’t expect any less because of her heavy course load.
“Our professors don’t cut anyone slack,” she said. “The more she works, the harder she’s expected to work.”
Bryant says that despite all of her work, Reach always has time to give advice and help out her friends.
“She’s such a good role model for all of us,” she said. “She’s always supportive to us and positive, even with so much going on.”
Reach relies on her friends and professors for encouragement, but her main support system is her family, specifically her 18-year-old sister.
“It helps [to have] my sister, Vivian, in the dance department too, so I know that she’s always there to help me,” she said. “We’re the dynamic duo.”
The sisters have been dancing together since childhood and now choreograph, study and take classes together.
“Savannah is my role model,” Vivian Reach said. “Everything that she’s done, I’ve always wanted to do.”
Even though they spend so much time together and even have the same friends, Savannah and Vivian say they never fight or get annoyed with each other.
“I don’t remember us ever fighting, even when we were little,” Vivian said. “I rely on her a lot, and she relies on me, but it’s not forced. I never need to tell her to be there for me or take up for me— she just does.”
Savannah Reach had her pick of colleges and was even recruited for dance companies when she graduated high school at the age of 17, but she chose the University of Alabama because of the opportunities and community.
“I feel really blessed to be here, with all the support I’m given,” she said. “The faculty always encourages us to do more.”
Savannah Reach will graduate in May of 2015 with her bachelor’s and master’s degree in chemistry as well as several awards in the field, but she still plans on dancing.
“After 18 years of dancing, I don’t think I could stop,” she said. “I think it’s always going to be a part of my life.”