From Bogotá to Tel Aviv, and from Fairfax to Charlottesville, graduating University of Virginia student Zohar “Zoe” Ziff has danced all over the world and learned a variety of forms, including ballet and hip-hop – as well as a contemporary type called “Gaga” that originated in Israel.
While she has taken dance classes for much of her life, in high school she got more intentional about balancing her love of movement with academics and her love of the sciences.
At UVA, she has immersed herself even deeper in the dance program, in which she has minored, and in her major, biochemistry, where she has been performing cutting-edge biochemical research.
She has poured her heart into both. And she has excelled in both.
“Having both dance and science in my life is incredibly important to me,” Ziff said. “Both activities are extremely rewarding, and I can’t imagine my time at UVA any other way.”
Ziff graduated from James Madison High School in Vienna, Virginia, but because her father works for the State Department, the family moved to different countries every few years, she said.
Her experiences of science classes varied from place to place, she said. In Bogotá, she and just four peers would get to their 7 a.m. AP biology course, where the instructor encouraged them to be curious and used a Socratic method of inquiry. In Rome, her AP chemistry course was more traditional.
As the family moved around the world, she danced wherever they went.
“It was often a way to connect with my peers in different countries,” Ziff said. “When my family moved to a new place – including Venezuela, Italy, Colombia, Spain or the U.S. – I would search for a new dance studio and enroll, and it not only continued my practice, but helped me make local friends and learn the language.”
At UVA, Ziff has immersed herself even deeper in the dance program, in which she has minored, and in her major, biochemistry, where she has been performing cutting-edge biochemical research.
After Ziff studied with the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company in Northern Israel several times, and then the danza180grados conservatory in Madrid, Spain, she decided that this pursuit of experiences in movement was not just a hobby and she would put more effort into it. The program in Israel was especially demanding and intensive, she said. She returned to the Israeli dance company for five months during a gap year before coming to UVA.
“That was a turning point. I knew I wanted to continue studying dance in college,” said Ziff, whose mother is Israeli. “I wanted to major in biochemistry and minor in dance because I’m interested in the details.”
She added that she was increasingly interested “in the more intricate pathways of life, how tiny fragments of us transform and interact, literally on the molecular level.”
She acknowledged that studying chemistry and practicing dance require different kinds of learning, but there are similarities, as well.
“There are many small parts that make up the molecular intricacies of the body’s regulation, and changing a few of those parts can have rippling effects,” Ziff said. “As I learned more about dance, I realized that small changes in body language, style, music choice, lighting and a host of other factors within a piece of choreography can completely shift its mood and meaning.” Despite its small size, UVA’s dance program, housed in the Drama Department, offered some mighty strong opportunities for a motivated student like Ziff, who had to get even more creative during the COVID-19 lockdown.
She joined the Miller Arts Scholars, an interdisciplinary arts program that offers a variety of resources for undergraduates to pursue their artistic dreams. The students meet in required seminars, work with faculty and visiting artists, and plan projects and events in their fields. They not only have to present a proposal for a project, but also follow up with a report on the outcome.
For a project last year, Ziff choreographed and created a dance film, learning how to record and edit a performance. In 2020-21, she also earned funding for a Rising Third-Year Arts Award, originally to attend an intensive training session at the American Dance Festival in New York City. When the pandemic prevented that, she and fellow student Kiana Pilson, another Miller Arts Scholar in Dance and arts awardee, commissioned an original duet from acclaimed choreographer Helen Simoneau, to be performed at the UVA Dance Program’s Virtual Spring Dance Concert. They produced the piece as a dance film.
This year, the UVA Arts Council selected her for a Distinguished Artist Award in Dance. “During her time at UVA, Ziff has proven herself to be a talented, critical dance artist and scholar who is deeply dedicated to the development and growth of her artistic practice,” wrote associate professor Kim Brooks Mata, who nominated Ziff. “A highly skilled improvisor and compelling performer, Ziff demonstrates tremendous potential as a creative collaborator and dance maker of both live and digital works.”
Mata, who is artistic director of the dance program, noted that Ziff fully immersed herself in the dance program community through coursework and productions on Grounds, participating in every semester’s performance.
“Ziff brings curiosity to her dance practice and poses perceptive questions that reflect a critical and intellectual depth not often seen by someone at this point in their journey,” Mata wrote in bestowing the Distinguished Artist Award. “She has a genuine passion for dance as an art form and its transformative potential for all practitioners and audiences.”
When Ziff first got to UVA, however, she reached another audience: readers. At the time, she wanted to be a science writer and signed up with the student newspaper, The Cavalier Daily.
“I learned a ton about communication and journalism during my time at The Cavalier Daily, but as I learned more about how biochemistry translates to medicine, I decided to pursue the pre-med track by the start of my third year,” she said. “I wanted to participate in what I had written about.”
Her choice to major in biochemistry was a good decision, she added. “During COVID, everything I was learning was tied in, and that made it more engaging and influenced me to pursue a medical school track.”
After Ziff took a biochemistry course with James P. Landers, Commonwealth Professor in the departments of Chemistry, Mechanical Engineering and Pathology, he asked her to work in his groundbreaking lab.
Landers said Ziff’s attention to detail stood out. She also showed “a tremendous willingness to learn by asking questions about why we are performing particular experiments,” he said. “She now contributes to the design of experiments, and is impeccable at note-taking and documenting results.”
Landers’ lab focuses on “microfluidics, or Lab-on-a-Chip,” as he calls it. “It is a multidisciplinary field involving the microminiaturization of biochemical and chemical reactions in extremely small volumes for rapid analysis; sometimes the devices are as small as a credit card,” he said. “The ‘shrinking’ of the chemistry allows for smaller, simpler instruments to run the devices, and this leads to portability and the potential for ‘point of need’ analysis.”
Point of need, or point of care, tests can help medical doctors and other scientists perform fast-result diagnostic tests at the bedside or in the field.
In the lab, Ziff has worked with doctoral candidate Scott Karas on developing “a new point-of-care device that could provide an easy way to detect infectious disease,” Landers wrote in email. The process uses a similar technique as the one for the at-home antigen test for COVID.
Another of Ziff’s science activities has included serving as a teaching assistant in one of the lab sections of Organic Chemistry, a notoriously difficult course. One of her goals was to make the material more accessible for her small group of students.
She also shadowed a primary care doctor in Northern Virginia – someone who took the time to get to know his patients, she said, and emphasized community ties.
Additionally, Ziff has volunteered at the local college chapter of Planned Parenthood, giving educational presentations on sexual health. She currently volunteers at the Sexual Assault Resource Agency, where she is training to be an emergency room advocate.
After graduation, she plans to stay in Charlottesville and apply for jobs that would give her more clinical and patient experience, since the pandemic prevented that possibility earlier. She wants to learn more about the practical side of medicine beyond the related academic subjects.
Somehow with all that activity, she plans to keep dancing. She just doesn’t know what form those next steps will take.