For the three years that Andrea Jones-Rooy (M.A. ’06, Ph.D. ’12) spent living and working in Shanghai, China, she was about as likely to be swinging on a trapeze as teaching university students. She was a professor by day and circus performer by night.
She kept up with the hectic schedule of a day job and the night shift five days per week, she says, by catching up on sleep when she could and sometimes changing into circus gear in her faculty office at NYU Shanghai. “I have pictures of me sitting backstage in costume with pointe shoes on, reading an international relations textbook because I had to teach it the next day,” she says. “But mostly, I was just late to everything.”
She had come to U-M for graduate school in LSA, researching political science with Professor Jenna Bednar for her Ph.D. and getting caught up studying complexity in the Center for the Study of Complex Systems (CSCS) with Professor Scott Page. She loved learning to think about data and the way that scholars from all different fields gathered at CSCS to study the formation and complex behavior of activist groups, traffic jams, flocks of birds, cities, and immune systems.
“I studied game theory for a long time—models that suggest there’s an optimal path. So I spent forever and throughout grad school looking for my optimal path,” says Jones-Rooy. “But trying to find the steps in the right order can be paralyzing, because who knows what that is in real life? And sometimes the paths matter, but complexity is much more about how you can skip steps, or move around, or try different things.”
She was especially drawn to a concept called deterministic chaos, illustrated well by something called the logistic map, “which shows that, at a deep level, you cannot truly predict anything. That perspective, which Carl Simon taught me while I was a grad student, has always resonated well with me,” she says. This explains her unusually high tolerance for uncertainty and compulsion toward adventure.
It was during grad school that Jones-Rooy discovered classes for aerial yoga and circus performance at a space called the Detroit Flyhouse. The physical activity and change of pace helped balance the demands of her Ph.D. But after graduating, she took a faculty position at NYU Shangai, far away from the circus circuit she had known and fallen in love with, to focus on her academic career.
She was there from the very first year of NYU Shanghai’s existence, helping build their liberal arts college from the ground up at the Chinese satellite campus. Jones-Rooy and her new faculty colleagues had the chance to ask philosophical questions whose answers they largely took for granted at established American universities: What exactly is the point of a midterm exam? What does it mean to be educated? Why do we think of the arts and sciences differently, anyway?
Andrea Jones-Rooy has been dancing since childhood. She went to the Detroit FlyHouse aerial yoga school while studying in LSA as a graduate student. The summer before moving to Shanghai, she lived and trained at The Muse, a circus studio in Brooklyn, where she specialized in trapeze and contortion. Photo by Allison Stock Photography
But the circus followed her to China.
When a boutique night club called Cirque Le Soir opened in Shanghai, Jones-Rooy sent them her performance highlight reel on a whim, and they hired her as a full-time performer in the evenings. There she was again—on the trapeze, eating flames, performing silks, twirling in an aerial hoop, lying on a bed of nails—and then waking up to teach and publish her research.
“I think having a second anything in your life helps you keep your work in perspective,” she says. “Like, I would have a stressful class or a bunch of faculty meetings, and then I’d go to Cirque. Within a half hour, I would realize that those problems weren’t a big deal. And I would have more energy going into class the next day.
“But over winter break, I stayed to do circus all month for all the big holiday shows. In that time, I didn’t do any academic work. I missed using my brain, wearing jeans, using a computer. To this day, I have to remind myself to loosen up and do something else, because otherwise, I just start taking everything too seriously.”
It took about 15 years for Jones-Rooy to become a university professor. In those same 15 years, she also came to realize that it wasn’t what she wanted to do. She had invested so much of her time and identity into the goal that she knew she should have wanted. But she realized that, all the while, she fretted over becoming a tenured professor. It felt like the wrong path for her—too focused on a single thing. Too little time for circus.
So when her plane from Shanghai touched down in New York City at the start of a short vacation, Jones-Rooy decided to leave her faculty job. She gave notice just before her tenure review. Adjusting to life outside of academia has been different and difficult, but Jones-Rooy took her favorite part of her old job with her: She created a syllabus for her life, outlining what she wants to learn outside of the classroom, too. And unlike the academic world, where her research may not reach the broader public, she wants to stitch together academic research and the real world.
Jones-Rooy is funny on the mic, whether she’s guesting on podcasts or stepping onstage as a standup comedian. She describes standup as a sort of science—she takes data during each show about what material works, iterates, and improves at her next gig. One lesson she learned in a Shanghai comedy club: Jokes that make fun of grandparents do not work with Chinese audiences. Photo courtesy of Andrea Jones-Rooy
Now, Jones-Rooy applies her expertise by consulting with companies that want to make their teams more diverse. She has written for the data-rich website FiveThirtyEight, posting articles that cover topics like how politicians strategize around investing money in disaster relief and which variables predict the next Heisman Trophy winner. She still fits academics into her life, but Jones-Rooy is veering away from the scripted options in favor of writing her own. Now, she’s helping spearhead a new data science course at NYU in NYC. And as is her way, she’s continuing with those “second” things that keep life in perspective: She helps manage a comedy club, spends more time on the trapeze, and is pitching a memoir about her circus life in China.
And her wildest dream that would assemble all of her passions: “If I really had my way, I’d have some kind of cool TV show that was like the social science version of Cosmos.” Combined with circus, of course.
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