Skip to main content

Dissertation Circus Tricks

An unusual graduate school tradition from the Nowicki lab.

Elizabeth Derryberry pulls a few surprises out of her magic hat during her dissertation defense.

When graduate students in biologist Steve Nowicki's lab
present their dissertation defense, there are no cookies on the table, but
there may be fire juggling, unicycle riding or a rare occasion of plate

Defense traditions on campus vary greatly, but the Nowicki's
requirement that graduate students present a circus trick is certainly among the
most unusual.

On his lab's website, Nowicki, the dean of undergraduate
education, states the origin of the tradition started with his first graduate
student Bernie Lohr, who juggled fire. 
It immediately became a lab requirement.

"Successful completion of the Circus Trick Requirement
is judged much the same way that outcomes of gladiatorial contests were judged
in a Roman coliseum," according to the lab website. "An assembled
rabble signal their approval or disapproval (now measured accurately with a state-of-the-art
applause-o-meter) and the Emperor (or lab head, or whatever) confirms the
result with a thumbs up or thumbs down."

"When other graduate students are getting ready to
select their research topic, students in my lab are selecting their circus
trick," Nowicki said.

For more, information about the dissertation circus tricks, click here. The website includes a complete list of past
tricks and commentary on several ongoing controversies.

To date, no one has attempted to saw the professor in half.