Mariel N. Pettee

By Maia R. Silber

On one of those cold November days when the Cambridge wind leaves most students with pink cheeks, a runny nose, and hat hair, Mariel N. Pettee ’14 glides into the Quincy dining hall looking perfectly put together. She slips off her winter coat and sits down at a window-side table, smoothing her sparkly silver skirt and adjusting her hair, pulled back into a neat half ponytail.

The joint concentrator in physics and math has a secondary in dramatic arts and has produced and performed in shows with the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club and the Harvard Modern Dance Company. A founder of The Generalist and the current president of The Signet Society, Harvard’s society devoted to those involved in the arts and letters, Pettee also works as a CA for the math department and a proctor for the Freshman Arts Program.

She pulls off this hectic schedule with the poise of a dancer.

"I just love running on full speed," Pettee says. "I’ve done this since I’ve gotten to college and I get such a rush from it."

Pettee, who describes her younger self as "that nerdy kid who lived space," arrived at Harvard with both an interest in astrophysics and several years of training in modern dance. She has since shifted her academic focus to quantum mechanics and particle physics.

At the same time, Pettee threw herself into the performing arts scene at Harvard, beginning with a position as an assistant stage manager in her first production here.

"My job was basically putting eye shadow on someone to make it look like they had a black eye," she says. "I enjoyed that almost as much as anything else that I’ve done."

Since, Pettee has produced, choreographed, danced for, and acted in a number of shows, her most recent being this fall’s HRDC production of Antigonick, an adaptation of the Sophocles classic. This year, Pettee has been working on a creative senior thesis that fuses her two passions: a performance centered around the recent discovery of the Higgs Boson particle.

She found the inspiration for this project when studying at CERN over the summer. "The discovery of the Higgs Boson was announced on my third day of work," Pettee explains. "I arrived in this whirlwind and got to witness this phenomenal event, and since then I’ve been really fascinated by how the Higgs Boson has changed the way we perceive ourselves in the universe."

Pettee described her performance as an installation piece, which she plans to put on in Farkas Hall. "My hope is to take over the building and let the audience wander between floors," she says. "I say installation rather than play because I don’t think there will be a strictly linear plot. There will be a lot of scenes—one might be a physics professor giving a lecture and another might be a modern dance piece."

As different as science and the arts might seem on the surface, Pettee explains that she sees a connection between the physicist who spends his lifetime studying a subatomic particle that he will never see, touch, or smell, and the dancer who spends hours in the studio perfecting a single move.

"I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it’s something I really admire," she says. "Whenever it happens to me I’m really excited—when you’re so invested in a project that it takes over your life."

Describing a favorite dance move, she extends one arm to the ceiling and another to her black tight-clad knees.

"There’s this prize in dance that for the past three years has gone to a physicist," she says, elaborating on the link between her two passions. "There’s balance, rotation, thinking about how you hold your weight. For me it’s about wanting to understand the fundamentals of how we move and how we fit into space."

Pettee, who says that CA-ing for Math 110 and Math 121 has been one of her most valuable experiences at Harvard, also described the connection between performance and teaching.

"In the context of a single performance, you connect to a specific audience, and whether it’s implicit or not they shape the way you perform," she says. "In class you’re doing that for an entire semester, you shape the way that you perform for your students."

Though she still describes her future as "open-ended," Pettee says that she can see herself teaching or working in education reform, perhaps by using arts as a new lens through which to introduce students to the sciences. Next year, she will most likely pursue further study in physics; she has already been accepted to a masters program at Cambridge University.

For now, Pettee will spend most of her senior spring wrapping up her thesis—with the fervor of a scientist and the grace of an artist.

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