A little-known secret of professional sports is that some of the smartest people in stadiums aren’t in the boxes; they’re on the field, holding pom-poms.
Eleven percent of professional cheerleaders are pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and math. (Compare that with Congress, where out of 535 representatives and senators, 0.37 percent, or two, are scientists.)
A group of about 300 current and former professional cheerleaders pursuing science and technology degrees led by an Arizona State University professor are working to encourage women to join technical fields, inspire younger generations and entice the public into citizen science projects.
Science Cheerleader was started about five years ago by Darlene Cavalier, a professor of practice at ASU's Center for Engagement and Training in Science and Society, an affiliate of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes, and a former cheerleader for the Philadelphia 76ers pro basketball team. Cavalier joined a panel at ASU on the future of space a few weeks ago.
The group started as a science policy-focused blog, with the title of "Science of Cheerleader" alluding to Cavalier’s own background as a 76ers cheerleader. Cavalier talked her squad mates into making videos about science facts. She started hearing from actual science cheerleaders who wanted to join and began posting interviews with them about their scientific backgrounds.
In 2010, the Science Cheerleaders were invited to perform at a scientific gathering in Washington, D.C. Eleven cheerleaders flew in and met each other.
“We knew there would be some raised eyebrows because you don’t usually see professional cheerleaders at science events,” Cavalier said. “It was fascinating because the women came from all over the country.”
Cheerleaders, often being more approachable than Nobel laureates, can make science accessible to people who would not show up at a science event or try to join a research project, Cavalier said.
“There’s two takeaways from this,” she said. “ ‘I didn’t know you could be smart and be a cheerleader.’ Or ‘I didn’t know that scientists are happy and have a social life and can look me in the eye when they talk, and enjoy what they do.’ We don’t force either definition when we go to events.”
One way the group has gotten the public involved in science was shooting microbe collection kits out of a T-shirt cannon at a 76ers game. The announcer came on and said, “OK fans, it’s your time to do science. Be part of an experiment to send microbes from your shoes or cellphone to the International Space Station.”
The experiment was Project MERCCURI, a study of how microbes behave on Earth and how they behave in space, in particular on the International Space Station. There were three areas of research: to understand the population distribution and behavior of 4,000 samples of microbes taken from shoes and cellphones all around the country; to compare the growth rates of microbes on Earth to 48 sent to the International Space Station; and to understand the types of microbes lurking on the International Space Station itself.
“All of this gets into looking at some data that would be important for long-term manned spaceflight,” Cavalier said.
Science Cheerleader has partnered with youth football and cheerleading program Pop Warner. It’s an opportunity to reach 100,000 young cheerleaders, Cavalier said
“Cheerleading is an important avenue for us because there are almost 3 million youth cheerleaders in the United States,” she said. “It’s really big. We feel we have the potential to make a huge dent.”
One young girl the group reached was Alexa Nieves, a 2015 ASU graduate, Arizona Cardinals cheerleader, and a product specialist with Honeywell Aerospace. Her father worked with Science Cheerleader event manager Bart Leahy.
“My parents always joked, ‘That’s you! You’re going to be a Science Cheerleader some day,’” Nieves said. “It’s funny — 10 years later I am a Science Cheerleader.’”
Nieves has always been drawn to science.
“I can remember being in seventh and eighth grade and having homework and doing assignments, and science was the one I always loved,” she said. “I could care less about English. I liked how (science) was very methodical. You started with something and you ended with something, and you knew what you were going to get. I liked that it was structured.”
Now Nieves holds a Bachelor of Science degree in geographic information systems from the University of Maryland and a Master’s of Science degree in business analytics from ASU.
“The people I work with very closely know I’m a cheerleader, but organization-wide I don’t think they know,” she said. When co-workers at Honeywell find out about her other job, they’re curious, she said.
“At first it’s ‘Oh! Really?’ ” she said. “And then they ask how I got into it and how I balance both things and how I do it all. Those are the kinds of questions I get.”
Every science cheerleader has her own experience, Cavalier said.
“Some never feel any stereotypes,” she said. “You will recognize a pattern for those that have found it difficult, or they had to hide the fact they were a cheerleader, usually that advice or that social stigma comes to them from their PhD adviser — usually a female. Almost always a female. … It takes a lot of courage for that science cheerleader to share that. ... It’s a generational issue as well. … There’s people who never show up in makeup, who shed every bit of feminism about them to be taken seriously in the lab. I think part of that sets up that conflict with the female adviser giving that advice, because that was her experience. ‘Oh my God, don’t ever tell anyone you’re a cheerleader, because it’ll be career suicide for you.’ ”
Nieves said that’s something she hasn’t run into, either in academia or the workplace.
“I haven’t gotten that reaction, thankfully,” she said. “I feel like a lot of people don’t know how to accept it. They don’t quite understand. ‘What do you mean you dance? What do you mean you’re at all the sporting events?’ It’s a lot of just educating people that I have practice a couple of nights a week and then I do game days. When I’m at my job I’m fully committed; that’s what I’m here for. It’s just that in the evenings I also have something else that takes my attention. But I haven’t gotten a negative reaction. Maybe I’ve just been lucky.”
Being a cheerleader makes for being a better scientist, Cavalier said.
“The unique things I bring to my team and my lab are my sense of optimism,” she said. “Oh, it didn’t work? Let’s do it again. You practice and practice and practice. There’s a certain level of determination. They’re intelligent. They have very good time-management skills.”
Nieves, who has danced since she was in high school, said her avocation has been a huge help in her professional life.
“Dancing my entire life has given me the confidence to walk into a room, to interview really well, to give a presentation really well, to talk to people, so it’s given me skills I will carry the rest of my life,” she said. “You should go for your dreams whether they’re conventional or unconventional, or whether people understand them or not.”
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