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, members of the Nowicki Lab also must complete the Circus Trick Requirement before they are eligible to receive their degree. The origins of this curious 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 with hoots and jeers, after which the emperor (or lab head, or whoever) confirms the result with a thumbs up or thumbs down.

Bernie Lohr, the first graduate of the Nowicki Lab and now a professor at UMBC, 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 early scandal, Prof. John Mitani of the University of Michigan, in his capacity as External Circus Trick Requirement Evaluator (ECTRE), 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." Twenty-five years later, Podos again performed this trick in front of an independent review panel at Cornell University, which overturned the Mitani ruling and restored Jeff's good name.

Scholars 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 in the late 1990s, qualified as a "trick" or merely as an "incident." The sanctity of the Circus Trick Requirement was restored in 2003 by the death-defying somersault, in full tuck, through a flaming hoop performed by Martin Beebee in completion of his degree. Kim Rosvall later took the Nowicki Lab's recurring fascination with fire to new and perilous heights with her flaming hula hoop dance routine. Further defining the form, Irene Liu performed an extended-play autobiographical musical interlude, including a surprise guest solo by her brother Stan on trombone. 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 of whether the Circus Trick Requirement should be mandatory for post-docs as well. This question was resolved in 2019 when departing postdoc Patrick Green sawed in half departing postdoc Eleanor Caves and then restored her to one piece, in a feat of magic as wondrous as when Liz Derryberry – also thinking outside the box – pulled a real live rabbit out of a hat at the culmination of her Circus Trick performance.

Prof. Mitani was awarded the title ECTRE Emeritus on the occasion of his retirement from Michigan and Prof. Nate Morehouse of the University of Cincinnati was elevated to the position of Chief Arbiter of the Circus Arts ("CACA") in a ceremony held at Durham's most exclusive rooftop bar, a setting second only to Machu Picchu for its holy grandeur, rarified air, and hand-crafted cocktails. The mystery and majesty of the Circus Trick Requirement endures...

Full list of the tricks performed so far

Nowicki Lab
Department of Biology
Box 90338, Duke University
Durham, NC  27708-0338  USA
Lab phone: 919-684-6950