Christopher Knowlton, 27, is a biomedical engineer, Ph.D. candidate, and artistic director of a Chicago-based dance company known as The Dance Team. In one year, Knowlton put together an evening-length show ( his first ), was a finalist in the 2013 Dance Your Ph.D. contest ( which includes a nod in the prestigious Science Magazine ), and made appearances at TEDx-Windy City and One State Together in the Arts ( a biennial arts conference in Moline, Ill. ).
Hailing from a small town near Moline, the young Knowlton excelled in the sciences, first exploring dance as a high-school student at the reputable Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora, Ill. Perhaps because he was away from his rural hometown, coming out to his friends and family wasn't particularly eventful. "I came out to my Dad crossing a parking lot... it's not terribly interesting. My siblings were like, 'uh, duh.' Coming out has been pretty easy."
After high school he spent a year abroad and studied hip-hop dance in Germany before returning to the states for college. He went on to study general engineering at the University of Illinois-Champaign/Urbana, but was no stranger to the dance department. He wanted to figure out a way to study the body as an engineer would, and a fortuitous internship with Johnson & Johnson first introduced Knowlton to bioengineering. It was love at first look.
As a current Ph.D. candidate in bioengineering at the University of Illinois-Chicago ( UIC ), Knowlton works with a lab at Rush University studying the effectiveness of orthopedic implants. His preliminary defense is scheduled for next spring, and he hopes to finish his dissertation a year and a half from now. All the while, Knowlton continues to run The Dance Team and has pursued freelance opportunities with performance artist/choreographer Erica Mott, Mark Jeffery of ATOM-R, and Synapse Arts.
It may appear like he leads a double life, but not really. With his background in engineering and long-time interest in dance, Knowlton has found ways to connect his two passions. He navigates the seemingly large gap between the arts and sciences by translating information through dance. As with the Dance Your PhD project, Knowlton often focuses less on creation and more on communication in his work, augmenting and articulating sometimes difficult concepts through his choreography. By using creative methods to explain scientific principles, he hopes to serve as an ambassador between the scientific and artistic communities, and to propagate interest in scientific career paths.
After his Ph.D., Knowlton wants to stay in Chicago, and his ideal job looks like an artist-in-residency at the Museum of Science and Industry: "...working with museum staff and exhibitors to develop live performances that augment and translate ideas, while working on original research surrounding movement. I haven't looked into the specifics... it's kind of just a dream right now. There's a dirth of enrollment in STEM career paths [i.e. science, technology, engineering, and math]... those jobs are extremely important." Knowlton believes that the arts can actively promote these professions to young adults. The work he's done with translating ideas helps make professions in the sciences relevant to future members of the workforce. Biomedical engineering addresses real issues, improves people's lives, and has a clear impact on our economy, so the need for future biomedical engineers cannot be overestimated.
Knowlton's career, however, is not at the forefront of his current day-to-day life. "The Dance Team is on hold due to 'hashtag life,'" he says. In August, 2013 Knowlton was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Diagnosis and surgery happened on the same day. In September, doctors decided he needed additional treatment. Based on the fact that he is young, low risk, and his case was caught so early, Knowlton stuck a deal to delay treatment in order to keep some professional commitments ( which included an international tour to London with choreographer Mark Jeffrey that immediately followed a presentation on knee retrievals in Turin, Italy ).
Now December, Knowlton is undergoing chemotherapy through a chest port, which, ironically, is a newer development in cancer treatment created by biomedical engineers. A short outpatient procedure implanting the chest port will preserve his peripheral veins and evade some of the side effects of cancer treatment. Having been on the production side of these sort of devices is of some small comfort now that he's on the patient, or customer side. "[The chest port is] scary to think about, but in practice...it's your best friend."
Knowlton feels that his background in both fields have played a key role in the detection of cancer, and also in the healing process. "Dance has been a real affirmation of recovery," he says. Knowlton performed just five weeks after surgery, which served as catharsis and also tangible evidence of recovery. Each rehearsal served as a test of how his physical strength was improving.
Did his scientific rationale and kinesthetic awareness better prepare Knowlton emotionally for cancer? "I don't know… There's a sound logic the doctor is working through that I totally relate to… but then, two days later… [I'm] a mess… of course!" While a background in biomedical engineering may have appealed to his logic, "it's like training for first aid in boy scouts…" All the sudden he was thrown into a situation he's prepared for, yet that no one can fully prepare for.
Throughout surgery and treatment, Knowlton says the support of the dance community has been overwhelmingly strong, as is the support from his colleagues at Rush and UIC. But his relationships within his academic lab and the rehearsal studio are quite different. He's "fostered a different relationship" with the people in his lab, but his team members at Rush have rearranged his commitments to allow for time off, created work that can be done from home, and refused any sort of financial recourse for the time off. They've committed to fully support him through treatment. "Diagnosis and surgery were on the same day, and I was basically in the hospital emailing… 'yeah, I can't come in tomorrow'... I cannot say how grateful I am [to them] for understanding."
In anticipation of symptoms from chemotherapy, Knowlton's created pre-emptive coping mechanisms such as dying his hair, nail art to cover discoloration of his fingernails, and "swants." Knowlton's latest creations of pants out of ugly sweaters ( i.e. swants ) are his way of thanking his community of friends, dance or otherwise, for cooking dinners, giving rides, and providing support through the treatment process. "It's my clever way of getting people to hang out with me... those things are good outlets. I make plans... almost like a Home Alone booby trap thing!"
In telling his story, Knowlton hopes to promote awareness and transparency about testicular cancer, and stresses the importance of self-checks. His mother is a nurse, he paid attention in health class, he was checking every so often, but he still feels he could have been more diligent about regular self-monitoring. "Early detection is so important. Do it! Don't be afraid of your body! And if you don't know what you're doing, ask your loved one to do it, look it up on the Internet... or, I've even told people, if you really need to, I will do it for you, and it will not be weird!"
Lauren Warnecke is a Chicago-based freelance dance writer, contributing to Windy City Times, See Chicago Dance, Dance Advantage, 4dancers, and the Huffington Post. She is the founder and editor of Art Intercepts, and a full time faculty member in the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Follow Lauren on Twitter @artintercepts.