Dr. John here… After a great interview with San Francisco 49ers Gold Rush cheerleader Erica, (and as part of our continuing effort to playfully challenge stereotypes and inspire young women to consider careers in science) I thought we’d make it an all-49ers week here on Science Cheerleader!
I’d like to introduce you to Christine, a biomedical engineer and a first-year member of the 49ers Gold Rush squad. Christine has a Masters in biomedical engineering from Arizona State and is currently pursing a PhD in the Joint Graduate Group in Bioengineering at UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco.
As you’ll discover in the interview below, Christine is a master at bridging the seemingly different worlds of cheerleading and engineering. Not only is she thrashing stereotypes en route to a career designing new, minimally invasive therapies for cancer patients, but she’s also managed to cheer for two rival NFL teams — the NFC West’s Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers — and the Phoenix Suns. Talk about someone who isn’t afraid to examine the world from different perspectives!
Thanks again to the San Francisco 49ers Gold Rush for giving us the opportunity to learn from Christine.
Who or what experience turned you on to science and engineering?
I can’t pinpoint one specific event that made me decide to study bioengineering. I think that there were many hints along the way. When I was little I had a set of children’s books with the biographies of people like Alexander Fleming, Marie Curie, and Helen Keller. I was really inspired by the ones about the famous scientists. I also loved the science museum and excelled more in mathematics and science subjects than other subjects.
For a very long time, I thought that I should be a physician because I wanted to help people and was very interested in medicine. Naturally, I did all the typical premed activities. I went to Tijuana to work in a clinic and volunteered in the pediatric emergency department in a county hospital. To my surprise, I was not thinking of how badly I wanted to be a physician like my friends that went on to medical school, but I was thinking scientist and engineers need to design more affordable, assessable medical therapies and devices.
The experience that finally changed my mind for good was when I volunteered in a Hospice. I saw the patients’ suffering in a new way. I realized that the technology for treatment and knowledge about these patients’ diseases were insufficient. Developing technology and innovation for this group of patients was something that I could spend the rest of my life working on. Bioengineering is a unique engineering discipline in that it is deeply altruistic with a genuine goal of improving the society by fighting disease and suffering making it was the perfect career path for me.
Do you have any advice for youngsters who might feel torn between following one dream associated with beauty or physique (like cheerleading) and pursuing a science and engineering career usually associated with, well, geeks?
First, I’d like to point out that true beauty is on the inside. External beauty fades, and it is important to nurture other aspects of ourselves outside of our appearance. Although, I do think it is very important to eat well and exercise regularly for our health. Who we are in on the inside is what is most important, and it always shines through. When you stop trying to be someone you are not that’s when life is really the most wonderful and people will see your real beauty.
Being a NFL cheerleader is about so much more than just physical appearance. I tried out for the 49ers because I wanted to contribute to my community, make lasting friendships, and dance on the best stage there is, the NFL. Gold Rush has given me all of those things plus more. Outside of that I just love dancing. I’ll quote Vicki Baum when I say, “there are short-cuts to happiness, and dancing is one of them.” I might not be the best dancer but I certainly have heart. If something makes you happy you should just go for it.
In the real world, professionals in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers are by no means “geeks”. Doctors, engineers and scientists are well respected in our society and have very successful lives. I have never once been asked on a date or been invited to a party and then informed them that I was an engineer and had them decide I was too geeky to go. Actually it has been exactly the opposite. Plus I get to have twice as many friends, my dance friends and my engineering friends who push me in different ways to be my best self. I feel like it is a great balance.
My last point is that I think that everyone should find what makes them happy and pursue it, whether it is art, teaching or anything. Life is short and we only get one shot at it. So you might as well live it up. If by chance that something that makes you happy is science or engineering, you shouldn’t let something silly like a geeky stereotype that is not even true persuade you against it.
Did you find that stereotypes about cheerleaders helped or hindered your studies or professional experiences?
Just like there are the stereotypes about scientists and engineers, there are stereotypes about almost every profession including cheerleaders, but in my experience, it only motivated me to prove them wrong. These stereotypes are supported by other’s insecurities, and we should not indulge them. Whenever people are successful there will be critics.
The best compliment is when you can change someone’s opinion. My previous employer said to me one day, “I didn’t know NFL cheerleaders were so smart.” That was a big win for me because my team is full of ambitious, smart, hardworking women, and I want people to see that.
How did your fellow cheerleaders accept your interest in science and engineering?
Totally, I feel like they are very proud of what I do. We are a solid team and extremely supportive of each other. I am very fortunate in that way.
While in college or high school, how did you balance education with cheerleading?
Two things helped me to juggle them. The first one is good time management. Keeping a planner up to date and organized is key. The second thing is to remember why I am doing this, especially when I’m studying late at night on my third cup of coffee or nearing the end of a seven hour practice. However, most the time I felt that without the outlet from school and the support of a team it would have been a lot harder.
How big of role can citizens without formal scientific training play in real scientific research?
As Albert Einstein wrote, “Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.” You do not have to be an award winning scientist to have an awesome idea. If you have one, you should share it.
What are your plans for the future?
I still have a long way to go before I really get to start my career, but at this point in my life, my main career goal is to lead a research group in academia. I would like to be involved in research that is both translational to the clinic and innovative at a basic science level. I would like to be involved in designing diagnostic techniques and therapies for cancer that are minimally invasive.
On a personal level, I am very passionate about making cancer treatment less painful for the patient. It would be a very fulfilling research path for me. Outside of my career, I plan on continuing to dance until my body will not let me anymore and having a family when I meet that special someone.
Best science and engineering experience?
When I search for my last name with Google scholar and my first peer-reviewed paper was there. I felt like I was finally a real engineer.
Favorite scientist and why?
Marie Curie hands down for many reasons. First of all, she was a woman born in 1867. There were very few female engineers or scientists up until the past few decades. Even with these improvements, less than 17% of doctorate recipients in engineering are female (2004) and only 11% of the engineering workforce are women (2003). She far surpassed these cultural barriers back in the early 1900s, advising three doctoral students. She was the first female Nobel Prize winner and the first person to ever win or share two Nobel Prizes. Outside of that I am very passionate about cancer research and it was under her direction, the world’s first studies were conducted into the treatment of neoplasms (cancer) using radioactive isotopes.
Favorite and/or least favorite courses you took to prepare for your work?
I have a love-hate relationship with my more challenging classes. I love learning as much as possible about medicine and engineering. However, there were days when I was stressed or tired because those classes were a lot more work. Transport Phenomena and Organic Chemistry were two of my favorite classes because I learned so much. At the same time they were much harder than UNI 101.