Lelia Rosenkrans named 2018 Whitbeck Award winner

Leila Rosenkrans. Photo by Ben Krain.

Lelia Rosenkrans’ academic interests pull in seemingly opposite directions. She is passionate about dance and the artistry and self-expression that comes from the creative process. And she is equally in love with science and the possibilities of discovery through disciplined research. 

Both, she discovered, have the capacity to transform lives.

At UA Little Rock, Rosenkrans didn’t have to choose between the two. On May 12, she will graduate with a BFA in Dance Performance with a minor in chemistry. She is this year’s recipient of the Alpha Kappa Psi Edward L. Whitbeck Memorial Award, a prestigious award given to one student chosen by the Faculty Senate Honors and Awards Committee who has demonstrated exceptional scholarship, leadership, character, and citizenship. The award comes with a $2,000 prize.

“Lelia is that rare student whose talents truly transcend their major,” said Jessica Scott, assistant director of the Donaghey Scholars Program. “Even though she is a gifted dancer, she has the mind of a scientist.”

Growing up in Springdale, Rosenkrans started dancing at age 4 at Rhythm and Shoes Dance Studio in Tontitown.

“I fell in love with jazz,” she said. “I was a shy kid and jazz gave me the opportunity to be someone else, outgoing and spunky.”  She started ballet at age 7 but didn’t become a serious ballet student until age 15.

She comes from a family of educators: her father is a professor of animal physiology at the University of Arkansas, and her mother is the associate vice president of Learning and High School Relations at Northwest Arkansas Community College.

When it came time to choose a college, she looked near and far. She auditioned for a few conservatory programs and was accepted to Wellesley College in Massachusetts as well as the University of Arkansas, which is close to her home in Northwest Arkansas. However, she was drawn to UA Little Rock, which offers the state’s only Bachelor of Fine Arts in Dance Performance.

“I knew I wanted to have the option to take both dance and pre-med classes,” Rosenkrans said. “I came to UA Little Rock as a chemistry major and then decided to have a dance/chemistry double major. Eventually, I realized that I could major in dance and minor in chemistry, and still achieve my goal of being prepared for medical school.”

What sealed the deal was a Donaghey Scholars Program scholarship, and with it the ability to study abroad and to graduate with no debt. During her first two summers, she worked as a medical intern in Sri Lanka and as an English teacher in Peru, both of which gave her invaluable perspectives on global policies.

“In Sri Lanka, I saw a country striving to aid its people through free health care, yet patients were turned away simply due to a lack of time and space to treat everyone,” Rosenkrans said. “In Peru, I was inspired by the community’s connection to their Incan farming traditions. However, I saw a community whose grains were being purchased for pennies in comparison to the price they are sold for in grocery stores within the United States.”

As part of the Whitbeck Award competition, Rosenkrans wrote an essay on the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

“I find myself returning to the idea of acknowledging the humanity and needs of others,” she wrote. “This involves creating and fostering an environment with meaningful cross-cultural dialogue, striving for and supporting breakthroughs in science and technology that help humanity, and advocating for and preserving communal works of beauty.”

With her eye on medical school, Rosenkrans completed the pre-medicine courses, taking as many as 23 credit hours per semester and finishing with a 4.0 grade-point average. Her friends joke that she never sleeps, and she admits that between dance rehearsals and lab work, she stays busy.

As a junior, she received one of the state’s Student Undergraduate Research Fellowships to study the biological, psychological and social impacts of a modern dance class. Her research examined salivary biomarkers indicative of fitness training and stress in modern dancers and compared the biomarker levels to dancers’ self-reflection surveys. The results provided evidence in support of modern dance as a source of stress relief, and also served as a step toward developing more specialized nutritional and cross-training guidelines for modern dancers.

“She took her two passions and combined them into a very novel research project,” said Dr. Brian Berry, chair and associate professor of chemistry. “I was impressed with the way she approached the idea and executed the work.”

Rosenkrans also works as a research assistant for Boston University’s Laboratory for Human Neurobiology, where she completed an eight-week internship last summer. The scientists there liked her work so much that they asked her to continue working remotely. Her current work involves annotating behavior traits indicative of Parkinson’s disease.

Outside of the lab, Rosenkrans spends much of her time in dance studios. As part of her BFA major, she created four original dance works. She has performed in the spring Bodyworks, the fall Dance Harvest, and with the Department of Theater Arts and Dance’s annual dance tour to high school and middle schools across the state.

Yslan Hicks, senior faculty and chair of the Department of Theatre Arts and Dance, has watched Rosenkrans progress as a dancer, choreographer, scientist and scholar for four years. As a first-semester freshman, Rosenkrans replaced a senior dancer in a highly athletic piece.

“I have known many first-semester freshman; I have seldom witnessed a comet on stage,” Hicks said. “Lelia was all light and speed and fire. Her broader academic and personal goals are often fixed on making things better for others. Even before her university experience she has given of herself with a global awareness.”

Off campus, Rosenkrans has performed with the Arkansas Festival Ballet’s productions of “Alice in Wonderland,” “Peter Pan,” and “The Nutcracker.” She is a member of UnTapped, the state’s only professional dance company, and she teaches dance workshops for members of the UnTapped Youth Ensemble.

“I love leading workshops in schools,” she said. “I have experienced the unity and joy created through free community dance workshops as children and adults alike find themselves possessing untapped capabilities within a body they have known for years. The discovery is truly empowering.”

Despite a hectic academic schedule, Rosenkrans has mentored younger Donaghey Scholars and served as an ambassador for the College of Arts, Letters and Sciences and as a student leader in Chi Alpha Campus Ministry. She has volunteered more than 200 hours at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, the 12th Street Health and Wellness Center, the VA Hospital and the UA Little Rock theatre box office.

“Her work has benefitted the university and contributed to the central Arkansas community, and through it all, she has grown as a person, a dancer, a scholar, and friend,” Scott said.

After commencement, Rosenkrans plans to take a year off – to travel, study, reflect, and focus on her future – before starting medical school in fall 2019. This summer, she heads to eastern Germany to study dance improvisation and then to India to become certified to teach yoga.

“I find myself both forever grateful and inspired by the experience I have been afforded during my time at UA Little Rock, and I hope to continue my traditions of scholarship, leadership and character throughout the rest of my life,” she said.

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