Upping the barre: How this cancer researcher and ballerina blends science and art
UTD’s Nikki Delk studies breast cancer in her laboratory and takes adult ballet classes in her free time.
Bright piano notes roll through the studio as Nikki Delk curls her fingers around the ballet barre. Delk lifts her heels to go en pointe while the instructor snaps to the rhythm.
As the music picks up, the instructor transitions to more complicated tendus and dégagés. Delk trains her eyes on the mirror, making minute adjustments to stay on beat. She maintains the focus a scientist might need to pipette a precise amount of liquid into a test tube, or isolate a protein inside a prostate cancer cell.
Delk would know: In addition to being a ballet student, she’s a cancer researcher at the University of Texas at Dallas.
Delk has one foot in the sciences and and one in the arts, blending them on a daily basis. In addition to taking ballet and pointe classes, she learns contemporary dance and jazz funk and paints in her free time. She was recently promoted to assistant vice president of research development at UTD and has created an organization that holds events such as art auctions to support her STEM outreach efforts.
She says she’s the rule, not the exception. To her, the sciences and the arts are inextricably linked. The skills she’s picked up from each allow her to excel in both.
Delk grew up as a self-described military brat and has had several homes across the globe, including in Virginia, Florida, Hawaii and England. She said the experience taught her how to make close friendships quickly, because she never stayed in a place for too long.
She comes from a family of career-oriented women. Because of societal conventions in the early 1900s, Delk’s great-grandmother was unable to continue her career as a schoolteacher once she started having children. As a result, her great-grandmother made sure her future generations knew the importance of getting a good education so they could live life on their own terms.
“I come from that matriarchal family,” Delk said, “because it was these women that were super smart and ambitious, but because of [the era] … didn’t have the opportunity to fulfill the dreams that they might have.”
Delk was close to her mother’s mother, whom she describes as the “cool grandmother.” Her grandmother dyed her hair, wore designer clothing and drove a sports car. She was also “brilliantly smart,” and graduated high school at 16, Delk said.
When Delk was 5, her grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. Her grandmother gave up her job as a civil servant for the Navy and became Delk’s babysitter while going through cancer treatment. The two of them made popcorn and snapped green beans, and her grandmother let Delk play dress-up with the wigs she had because of her chemotherapy treatment.
When her grandmother passed away, 9-year-old Delk made a decision. She was going to cure cancer when she grew up. At the time, she didn’t know exactly what that meant, but she knew exactly who she was doing it for.
Today, Delk is a professor at UTD. She wants to know how cancer cells slip past the body’s immune defenses, surviving against the odds. She’s investigating whether a protein called interleukin-1, which triggers the body’s inflammatory response to a threat, could have anything to do with it.
“The tumor cells evolved to actually utilize the inflammation that was meant to destroy them … to survive,” Delk said. “And so, one of the things we look at in my lab is what is happening inside of the cell that allows it to survive, even though it’s been exposed to this inflammatory molecule that should kill it.”
Kelli Palmer, an associate professor of biology at UTD, said Delk’s enthusiasm for research is infectious. “Nikki’s really inspiring,” Palmer said. “She’s just a really effective communicator when it comes to convincing people that research is important, that everyone is … capable of being a scientist.”
Delk said one of the more rewarding parts of her job is mentoring budding scientists in the lab. She loves helping them reach their goals as they pursue Ph.D. programs or move on to medical school.
Roopal Dhar, a Ph.D. student who has worked in Delk’s lab since spring 2021, says Delk has regular meetings with her students to go over their progress and help them with whatever they need. “She never makes you feel left out or makes you feel that there is no one to help you,” Dhar said.
The best of both worldsArt and science have been parallel passions throughout Delk’s life.
Dance has been one of her hobbies since she was a kid. She credited Stephen McMaryion from the Live Arts Conservatory and Janicka Arthur from the Art of VIII School of Dance as two of her influential instructors when she pursued dance as an adult.
Delk said her interests are neither surprising nor uncommon. A member of her lab is a semiprofessional tap dancer, and a colleague plays violin in an orchestra, among others.
She said scientists are creative by nature. Researchers have to open their minds to come up with new ways to target a protein in cancer cells or answer the big unknown of how tumors evade the body’s natural defenses.
“We would never discover the things we discover if people had blinders on when they were doing science,” Delk said. “You have to have a level of creativity and openness that I think is very much associated with being an artist.”
By the same token, scientific research takes discipline and focus. Delk said artists need that same discipline to follow along with an orchestra during a musical performance or to hold a pose during a ballet dance.
Arts for scienceIn 2019, Delk was on a plane with two African American children sitting next to her — a 5-year-old girl and a 9-year-old boy.
Delk told them about her job as a researcher. She opened up her laptop to show the kids pictures of her lab and her students, who are mostly women. As she scrolled through the photos, the boy looked up at her and asked a question.
“Are little boys allowed to be scientists?”
Because all the photos of scientists Delk had shown him were women, the boy thought only girls could be scientists. Delk told him yes, of course he could.
The interaction reminded her why representation in STEM fields matters, though it isn’t the be-all, end-all.
“Kids are going off of what they see,” she said. “And so, if they don’t see anyone that looks like them, they’re not going to think they have access to that.”
Delk is passionate about increasing underrepresented groups’ participation in the sciences.
According to the Pew Research Center, Black people accounted for 9% of the STEM workforce as of 2019. Delk said the push for greater diversity in STEM fields is about representation but it’s also about perspective — creating space for varied lived experiences that help determine what scientific problems are addressed and how.
“It’s your own personal experience that influences what you do,” she said. “And when you have multiple perspectives, then … it makes everybody better. It makes society better.”
Last year, Delk created an organization called Arts for Science. The organization raises awareness about her lab’s cancer research and garners support for STEM outreach using the arts.
In August, Arts for Science held an art auction and black-tie gala dinner featuring pieces donated by Dallas artists, live music from the band Smooth Noise and about 100 attendees. Delk will use funds raised from the auction to boost her STEM outreach efforts.
This past summer, Delk hosted a three-week STEM summer research experience for African American high school students in her lab at UTD.
She and lab members taught students key techniques such as pipetting and analyzing proteins. The students isolated proteins involved with the body’s immune response to prostate cancer cells and presented their findings to the lab.
Kortni Foreman, 17, a senior at the School of Science and Engineering at Yvonne A. Ewell Townview Center, participated in Delk’s summer research experience this year. Her mother, Kashundra, said the camp helped Kortni begin to envision herself working in a lab someday.
“We both discussed this … how important it was for [Kortni] to see a Black woman who is clearly leading in science,” Kashundra Foreman said. “But not only that, she’s trying to draw other students in who [look] like her … into the same spaces that maybe she once felt uncomfortable in.”
Kortni Foreman said she made real friendships in the lab and has become more interested in exploring research as a potential career path. “It definitely has taught me, more than anything, [that] if you really want to do something, you can make it happen if you push enough for it,” she said.
Impostor syndromeWhile Delk was taking urban dance classes, her instructor, McMaryion, approached her with a question. His professional Urban Performing Company was about to debut — and he wanted Delk to be part of the first performance.
At first, she was taken aback. Why was he asking her? She wasn’t a professional dancer. She didn’t feel like she deserved the opportunity.
After sitting with it for a while, she decided to take McMaryion up on his offer.
“I was on stage for, like, three eight-counts while the rest of them were doing their beautiful things,” she said. “But it felt so good to be a part of it, you know?”
Delk said impostor syndrome is something she confronts both in the dance and research worlds. She said critique is built into research: Professors’ work gets put under the microscope when they’re up for tenure or submitting a paper for publication. Getting harsh feedback can be demoralizing, leading scientists to question whether they deserve to be there.
She said she’s learned to build up a thick skin to take the critiques but not let them veer her off-course. Today, she gives her students advice on doing the same.
“I always tell my students, you get 48 to 72 hours to sulk,” she said. “And then, you’ve got to get back on it.”
Delk pushes through low moments by letting herself feel the frustration. Then, she makes a plan to move forward onto the next.
Between her artistic and scientific pursuits, she’s got plenty to tackle.
Source- Dallas News
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