Dr. John here… If you were to passively glance at the above photo, you may assume that I have a lot in common with today’s Science Cheerleader guest, Sami, a clinical research coordinator at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC)’s Eye Center.
Sami has a bachelor’s degree in biology (like me) from Washington & Jefferson College, and she is currently involved in scientific research investigating the retina (so was I). Even crazier is that her favorite team is the Pittsburgh Steelers, and my favorite team, the Arizona Cardinals, recently lost to those same Steelers on a devastating, unforgettable, and life-altering last-second play in the Super Bow!
What you wouldn’t know is that (unlike me) Sami is also an All-Star collegiate cheerleader with ten years of experience cheering for football, basketball, wrestling, and soccer teams — pretty much every high school and college sport except quidditch. Best of all, she’s a high achiever who was named team captain at multiple levels of competition and will be pursing a Masters and PhD in genetics.
How did she manage the rigors of two challenging fields like science and cheerleading? You’ll find out in the interview below! Thanks to Sami for supporting our continuing effort to playfully challenge stereotypes and inspire young women to consider careers in science.
Sami, what type of scientist are you, and what is your current position?
I am responsible for all retina studies conducted at the UPMC Eye Center, which means checking study patients’ vision and eye pressure before the doctor examines them, recording data, prepping patients for injections when necessary, and maintaining the regulatory binders for each study. (A regulatory binder is a binder, or often set of binders, which has all of the essential documents required for a study. One major document in every “reg binder,” is the protocol, which details every aspect of the study such as who can participate, what is being researched and why, and how the data will be analyzed.) It’s a great fit for me because it combines my biology background with my interest in the biomedical field , my annoying over-organizational skills, and my love of working with people.
Which teams have you cheered for?
I began cheering for my community recreational squad, the Lil’ Macs, at the age of 12. After cheering for them my 7th and 8th grade years, I became a member of Canon-McMillan High School’s (Canonsburg, PA) Junior Varsity squad. I landed a spot on the Varsity squad my sophomore year, and continued cheering for the Big Macs through my senior year (2005-2006), when I was named one of the captains.
I pursued my love of cheering in college, cheering for the Washington & Jefferson College (W&J) Presidents all four years of my undergraduate work. I had the pleasure and privilege of serving as co-captain of this squad my junior year (2008-2009) and captain my senior year (2009-2010). During my senior year, I was also selected as a UCA all-star. I have cheered for football, basketball, wrestling, soccer, as well as participated in a number of parades during my 10 years as a cheerleader, and I have performed all stunting positions. I competed at the local, regional, and national levels while in high school, and helped W&J’s squad compete for the first time ever in the spring of 2009.
Who or what experience turned you on to science?
This is a really interesting question for me, because I’ve never really considered myself a science person. I always did well in school, but tended to prefer subjects like English and history over science. Despite my preference for less systematic subjects, I have always found DNA really interesting (because I am, not-so-secretly, a HUGE nerd), but had no idea what people who studied science did besides work in a lab or become a doctor (neither of which I had any interest at the time).
I took general biology my freshman year to get my lab credit out of the way and complained the whole time about how silly it was for me to take a course that could not possibly assist me in my initial career choice, high school English teacher. My intrigue in the microscopic world of genes persisted, though, and I requested to bypass the second semester of general biology to take genetics as an elective in the spring of my freshman year. The department chair, a woman who ended up being one of my favorite professors and role models by my senior year, explained that I should take the requisite second semester of general biology before genetics. Sure, exceptions had been made, but it was only one more semester, I was a freshman, and what f I decided down the road I really wanted to major or minor in biology? Bypassing that second semester would eliminate that possibility.
So, grudgingly, I agreed to follow the curriculum. And by the fall of my sophomore year, I had declared my double major: English and Biology. It still took a little while getting used to, because I’d never expected to major in anything remotely related to the sciences, but my professors were all very encouraging and so interested in what they were teaching, that it made me want to learn more, too.
And I had discovered that my love of those little nucleotides (the building blocks of DNA) could translate into a career in genetic counseling, research (which I discovered I really enjoyed—there are so many things to learn!), and my ultimate goal, college professor.
Did you find that stereotypes about cheerleaders helped or hindered your studies or professional experiences?
People tend to have this HUGE misconception that cheerleaders, especially blonde ones like myself, are airheads. I don’t believe anyone has ever not taken me seriously, but I know there have been times when people have doubted my intelligence and abilities because I spent my Friday nights or Saturday afternoons on the sidelines shaking my pom poms. It’s always fun to see their reactions when they realize that I’m actually a pretty smart girl.
People are always more surprised by my intellect than by my cheerleading background. (Apparently, I look like a cheerleader, and not like a scientist—which is strange, because I’m not entirely what either is supposed to look like.) I won’t say I enjoy being underestimated, but it definitely can have its benefits. It makes you strive harder to prove yourself, and there is a lot of satisfaction to be had from far exceeding someone’s expectations (especially when that someone is silly enough to believe this stereotype).
While in college or high school, how did you balance education with cheerleading?
So many people have asked me that, and I think I just didn’t think about it—I just did it. If I would’ve stopped to think about how I managed to get everything done, it would have all fallen apart. And of course, I could never have balanced it without the love and support of my amazing family and friends.
Do you have any advice for youngsters who might feel torn between following one dream associated with beauty or physique (cheerleading, baseball, etc) and following a STEM career usually associated with, well, geeks?
Do what you love and love what you do and don’t ever let yourself believe there is something you can’t achieve. I’ve been really blessed with the opportunities and experiences I’ve had in both my cheerleading and academic careers, but it wasn’t all easy, and it would have been even more difficult had I not enjoyed what I was doing. I was able to follow my heart in both directions, because that’s what I wanted to do. There were certainly times when I thought it might not be possible to do both because of the time commitments both required, but if you want something bad enough, you’ll find the time and make it work. Don’t feel torn—you can have the best of both worlds!
Best cheerleading experience?
This has to be a tie between helping to lead my college squad to our first competition last spring and competing at nationals my senior year of high school.
I thought my senior year at nationals would be my last competition ever, and there is nothing like nailing a routine. That year, we placed higher than we ever had, and I thought, “What a great note to end my competitive cheer career on!” Competing for the first time at W&J was such an accomplishment, not just for myself and the captain, but the squad as a whole. Being the first is never easy. We had a lot to get done in a short amount of time, and we had to overcome some obstacles to get there, but we did it, and I was so proud of the squad!!!!
Favorite sports team?
PITTSBURGH STEELERS!!! I am a hometown girl, and lucky for me, my hometown team is the best in the NFL. It’s not just about the steel curtain or our 6 Superbowl rings. (Yes, 6. They are THAT good.) The Steelers have a way of relating to their fans and becoming a part of the city. Our players and coaches are some of the most legendary in the league, so it’s no surprise you can find Pittsburgh Steelers bars in cities across the country and terrible towels waving proudly in every state on Sundays when the Steelers play. There’s nothing like being a Steelers fan!
Favorite and/or least favorite courses you took to prepare for your work?
I really enjoyed all of my biology courses, even the ones I was a little wary of at first, so I’m not sure I could name a favorite, but my seminar course is definitely in the running. My least favorite course had to be chemistry. I took one semester of organic chemistry and had enough! My professor was great, and my roommate was a genius chemistry major, but I could not wrap my mind around the different structures and reactions no matter what either of them told me.
What are your plans for the future?
I plan to begin a Master’s program next Fall in genetic counseling and/or public health genetics, followed by earning my Ph. D. in human genetics. I would also love to coach a high school squad in the near future.