Uma Nagendra, who's working on a PhD in plant biology at the University of Georgia, has the advantage of being a circus enthusiast. Instead of doing a typical dance or a funny music video, she choreographed the elaborate aerial routine seen above. After winning for the biology portion of the competition, she's now taken the grand prize — and $1,000.
Nagendra studies tornadoes, but her work doesn't focus on the devastation they can cause. Instead, she is investigating the ways that tornadoes can change the dynamic of the ecosystem, and possibly even benefit some organisms.
The acrobatic routine represents one example of this. A mature tree can accumulate a lot of fungi in its roots, and some of it is harmful to tree seedlings — so seedlings that grow too close to a mature tree are at risk of attack. Because the more distant seedlings are safe from the fungi, they're more likely to survive. That's why the mature trees of one species (in this case, white pine) will be distant from one another, allowing lots of other species to grow in between them.
But when a tornado occurs (as it does in the middle of the dance), this pattern can change. When the mature trees are killed in the storm, many of their fungi will die as well — allowing the seedlings to thrive, no matter where they sit.
Nagendra is still studying how this relationship between plants and their soil might change after a tornado. But she's certainly done a beautiful job of showing us her work.