Biology Student Builds Communications Chops Thanks to Theater

Biology Student Builds Communications Chops Thanks to Theater
Focused on her studies of equine kinematics, Hegarty still makes time to ride and compete with her mare, Gwen. (Emi Hegarty)

Traditionally, the arts and the sciences have been viewed as two distinct fields of study, disconnected and distant to each other. But it isn’t uncommon to see Duke students with defined paths in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) also majoring or minoring in the performing and visual arts — adding these disciplines to not only their course loads but also their career goals.  

Biology and Theater Studies junior Emi Hegarty came to Duke with a plan to major only in Biology with a focus on genetics and genomics, but it was the course “Mechanisms of Animal Behavior” with Professor Stephen Nowicki that rekindled her interest in animal systems.

“I love thinking about biology through more of an animal-focused lens,” she says.

More specifically, her lens is focused on equine kinematics. With a love for horses that can be traced back to eighth grade, Hegarty worked at a barn during high school, helping to train horses. And she still makes time to ride and compete with her mare, Gwen.

She’s also made time in her course work for another love: theater. She’s been heavily involved in the discipline since high school and always felt it was a way for her to find community and express herself in a safe space.

“When I came to Duke, I initially intended to leave theater behind and pursue only STEM, but my first year here was rocked by COVID,” she explains. “I needed to find a community, so I auditioned for the Theater Studies’ mainstage ‘Citizen’ and ended up working as the assistant director. I absolutely adored the people and the support offered — and decided to stay involved.”

Emi Hegarty performing in Theater Studies’ spring mainstage “Life Is a Dream.” (John West/Trinity Communications)
Emi Hegarty performing in Theater Studies’ spring mainstage “Life Is a Dream.” (John West/Trinity Communications)

And Hegarty has remained involved, appearing in three mainstage productions: “She Kills Monsters,” “Life Is a Dream” and “Media.” She has also performed with the student group Duke Players and will be the fight coordinator for its upcoming production of “Marisol.” 


We asked Hegarty about the benefits Theater Studies and Biology have provided and where she sees herself after graduation.  

Why is it important to include theater in your studies at Duke when your career path is focused in biology?

Theater has helped me stay well-rounded and stretch my skills as a communicator — and science is all about productive communication.

To be successful in a STEM career, I need to be able to talk passionately and coherently about topics that interest me. Theater not only gives me these skills but also the confidence to stay calm and not get flustered when giving presentations or faced with hard questions. 

Have your STEM courses benefitted your work in Theater Studies?

Absolutely! I’m very technical when approaching theater, a skill I attribute to those STEM courses. I love breaking down text and taking the time to understand the minute details of the characters I play.

STEM has also given me the tools to tackle vocabulary and situations that I don’t fully understand so I’m then able to contextualize them in a way that can be interpreted. This is especially helpful when performing classical pieces but also extends into understanding characters who inherently differ from me. 

Where do you see yourself after graduation?

That is a great question, and one to which I don’t totally have the answer. I’m playing with the idea of getting an M.F.A. in acting and pursuing a career in stage acting. My absolute dream would be acting in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival!

Another part of me wants to do research into equine kinematics and work with stables and trainers across the United States to start integrating knowledge learned through that work into their training programs.

No matter which way I end up going, I know the analytical skills I learned in Biology and the confidence and interpersonal skills I acquired through Theater Studies will be equally important in my success.