The Nowicki Lab at Duke University


The Circus Trick Requirement

In addition to completing requirements for the Ph.D. as specified by the Duke Graduate School, students in the Nowicki Lab also must complete the Circus Trick Requirement before they are eligible to receive their degree. The origins of this peculiar requirement are uncertain, but most scholars agree that it is a relic of "Iconism," a mythological world-view practiced by many students in the early years of the Nowicki Lab.

Successful completion of the Circus Trick Requirement is determined much the same way that outcomes of gladiatorial contests were judged in a Roman coliseum: an assembled rabble signal their approval or disapproval (now measured accurately with a state-of-the-art applausometer) and the emperor (or lab head, or whatever) confirms the result with a thumbs up or thumbs down.

Bernie Lohr, the first graduate from the Nowicki Lab, set a high bar for the Circus Trick Requirement – and began a sub-theme of "potential death by immolation" – by deftly juggling three flaming clubs (a trick he learned from Steve). All subsequent Circus Tricks have been deemed successful, although not without controversy. In one famous scandal, Prof. John Mitani of the University of Michigan, in his capacity as External Circus Trick Requirement Evaluator, attempted to revoke Jeff Podos' degree, claiming that Podos had "taken advantage of the late hour and sorry condition of the crowd to pawn off a cheesy trick as a skillful act." Circus Trick Requirement scholars also continue to debate whether the threat of an extremely unsavory combination of marshmallows, smoked snails and nasal passages, issued by a pair of finishing students, qualifies as a "trick" or merely as an "incident." The sanctity of the Circus Trick Requirement was fully restored in 2003 by the death-defying somersault, in full tuck, through a flaming hoop performed by Martin Beebee in completion of his degree. History was made on two fronts with Barb Ballentine's 2006 plate-spinning act: this was the first circus trick ever that Steve was unable to perform immediately, and Jeremy Hyman's participation in this act raised the question – still debated – of whether the Circus Trick Requirement should be mandatory for post-docs in the Nowicki Lab as well. On completion of her Ph.D., Elizabeth Derryberry – thinking outside the box – performed a suite of magic tricks, culminating in pulling a live rabbit out of a hat. Kim Rosvall took the Nowicki Lab's recurring fascination with fire to new and perilous heights with her flaming hula hoop dance routine. And – further defining the form – the lab's most recent graduate, Irene Liu, performed an extended-play autobiographical musical interlude, including a surprise guest solo by her brother Stan on trombone!

Full list of the tricks performed so far

Nowicki Lab
Department of Biology
Box 90338, Duke University
Durham, NC  27708-0338  USA
Lab phone: 919-660-0927 or 919-684-6950
Office of Undergraduate Education: 919-668-3420
Fax: 919-660-7293