Meet Melissa, a Tennessee Titans cheerleader and a medical researcher at Vanderbilt University, specializing in molecular neuroimaging. Last we heard from Melissa, she and her co-cheerleading/scientist pals sent us this greeting:
Melissa’s back as a participant in our ongoing effort to playfully challenge stereotypes and inspire young women to consider careers in science and technology. Our favorite quote from Melissa: “I wish I had a knack for Newton’s laws, but I’m much better with action potentials!” Goooo Melissa!
What type of scientist are you, Melissa?
I am currently working as a clinical research coordinator specializing in neuroimaging. I was a neuroscience major at Vanderbilt University and since graduating, have devoted myself to full time medical research at Vanderbilt. I worked in a molecular neuro/psychiatric lab for two years, studying genetic expression of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and Parkinson’s disease, and since then, I joined the aforementioned neuroimaging group, specializing in PET, fMRI, and fat-water imaging. I am trained in various molecular techniques, including but not limited to qPCR, primary tissue culture, DNA and RNA extraction. With regard to neuroimaging, I am trained to use many imaging analysis tools such as statistical parametric mapping and voxel based morphometry. My title is Research Assistant II: Neuro Radiology.
Yes, I am currently in my third season with the Tennessee Titans! While I was a student at Vanderbilt, I danced for the Vanderbilt Commodores for four years, serving as Captain in my final year.
What turned you on to science and when?
I became interested in science and medicine at a very young age. I would say that my pediatrician is responsible for sparking my interest
in a medical science career. I remember idolizing him and wanting to learn everything he knew. He encouraged me to pursue my interest by providing me with answers, textbooks, then a full-time summer job for several years when I was in high school.
Did you find that stereotypes about cheerleaders helped or hindered your studies or professional experiences? (Were you taken seriously?)
Unfortunately, I would say that cheerleading stereotypes have, to a certain degree, hindered my studies and professional experiences. It has been quite challenging to mesh two contrasting interests, and I have encountered many critics along the way. As a blonde cheerleader, I feel that I have had to prove that I am an intelligent woman to be taken seriously. It is a constant effort to alter the preconceptions of many. Especially in the world of academic science, women and moreover, women who cheer or dance professionally, are an under-represented demographic, and it is sometimes very difficult to convince colleagues that it is possible to be talented in such starkly different areas.
How did your fellow cheerleaders accept your interest in science?
Women with whom I’ve cheered are fully supportive of my interest in science and the career paths that I have chosen. I am so lucky to be surrounding by such bright women who are goal oriented and encouraging.
Do you have any advice for youngsters who might feel torn between following one dream (cheerleading, etc) associated with beauty and following another (a STEM career) usually associated with, well, geeks?
I encourage young girls to follow their dreams! If that means becoming a professional cheerleader and a biomedical engineer, even better! Stay focused on your priorities, and create your own recipe for success and happiness.
The wonderful thing about my job is that no two days are exactly the same. New developments in medical research emerge daily, so it is very important for me to stay up to date on what is happening in the world of science and technology. I love working in a field that enables me to constantly soak up new knowledge. Currently, I am working on a study that combines elements of radiology, endocrinology, and nutrition. Throughout this clinical trial, I am responsible for coordinating our human volunteers. Specifically, I am interested in the neuroimaging component of the study. Several types of imaging data are obtained, and it is my job to collect, sort, organize, and finally analyze those data. Exciting discoveries are on the horizon!
How big of a role can citizens without formal scientific training play in real scientific research?
Clinical research is completely dependent on the participation of volunteers. If you would like to get involved, seek out a nearby research center and inquire about opportunities. That is a great way to play a major role in scientific research without any training. Study participants enable formally trained scientists to better apply their knowledge.
What are your plans for the future?
I aspire to continue my education as a graduate student. I am interested in medical school, pharmacy school, as well as the PhD track.
Best cheerleading experience?
I have had so many wonderful experiences as a cheerleader. I will never forget the first time I stepped out onto LP Field for my first Titans game as a cheerleader. The roar of the enthusiastic fans in the stadium, the energetic football players, the photographers…it was wonderfully overwhelming. But the excitement doesn’t stop on game day. We are able to become involved in the community and personally interact with our fans. I have had the opportunity to visit our troops in Ft. Lewis, Washington, speak at youth leadership conferences in middle Tennessee, and visit a number of hospitals and schools. Each opportunity is so special and unforgettable.
Best science-related experience?
I was on the Neuroscience Executive Board at Vanderbilt as an undergraduate. It was fantastic to be a leader within the neuroscience field at my university. I was able to recruit students to pursue an interest in neuroscience and encourage the science major. As a full time researcher, my favorite experiences come from analyzing data. There is something so exciting about not knowing what result an experiment will yield and watching it unfold on a computer screen. Every data set I analyze is a new puzzle being pieced together. It is
the culmination of so much work, and it’s exhilarating.
Favorite and/or least favorite courses you took to prepare for your work?
My favorite courses were The Biological Basis of Mental Disorders and Brain Damage and Cognition. I love to study the brain and the way it works. My least favorite courses were my physics classes. I wish I had a knack for Newton’s laws, but I’m much better with action potentials!