[Editor's note: Wendy is now pursuing her PhD in biochem at the University of California, Davis and has moved from the NFL to the NBA cheering for the Sacramento Kings!]
Sitting down? EIGHT of the current Atlanta Falcons cheerleaders are pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering or math. EIGHT. Let’s meet one now.
Wendy is working towards her biomedical engineering degree at Georgia Institute of Technology (aka Georgia Tech). She’d like to go on to earn her PhD and become a reconstructive surgeon and help the military develop biological reconstructive technologies …and she’s planning to get married and have a big family. That’s right! Check out our interview with Wendy:
SciCheer: What turned you on to science and when?
Wendy: I’ve always been interested in science. Since I can remember I’ve wanted to know how things worked. In middle school and high school I became more interested in the biological sciences than chemistry or physics. Once in college I realized that I love physiology and the biomedical aspect of that. Basically I think that anything that explains how the body works is super cool!
SciCheer: Please tell us about your favorite and least favorite courses you are taking to prepare for your Biomedical Engineering degree from Georgia Institute of Technology.
Wendy: Favorite courses: systems physiology, systems pathophysiology, and cellular physiology;
least favorite: principles of conservation – it was like four really hard classes crammed into one.
SciCheer: How long have you been cheering for the Atlanta Falcons?
Wendy: This is my rookie season!!
SciCheer: Which came first: your interest in science or cheerleading?
Wendy: I’ve danced on and off pretty much my whole life. I got more involved in high school because I was on the dance team, as my interests in science continued to develop. I continued to dance in college, as well as pursue a science degree, and that’s when I was really introduced to the idea of professional cheerleading. My collegiate coach is a captain on the Falcons and her ‘pro cheer’ style definitely influenced the team and my ambitions. Before then I had thought of cheering for the NFL as very niche – like something only a select group of special people got to be involved with. Once I saw it as a tangible opportunity, I knew I wanted to do it.
SciCheer: Can you describe a typical day (at work, then cheering…please elaborate)?
Wendy: I’m a full-time student so I’m in class during most of the day. I also work as a research assistant in a lab on campus. Between dance rehearsals, games, and studying for the GRE (entrance exams for graduate school), I don’t have much “free time.”
SciCheer: Did you find that stereotypes about cheerleaders helped or hindered your studies or professional experiences? (Were you taken seriously?)
Wendy: Honestly nothing frustrates me more than when people react based on what they think they know about cheerleaders. Where I grew up, people seemed to think that you couldn’t be both “pretty” and “smart,” and they made that clear in how they acted toward certain people. My genuine interests in science kept me on the path to my degree and career. Thankfully at Georgia Tech and in Atlanta, people don’t buy into those stereotypes as much. I’ve found that while most people don’t expect me to say I’m a Biomedical Engineering student and Georgia Tech, they think it’s great. Everyone I’ve dealt with professionally has been very supportive and helpful.
SciCheer: How did your fellow cheerleaders accept your interest in science?
Wendy: They think it’s great! Everyone on the team is so supportive of each other in every aspect of life. I love getting texts that say things like “Good luck, smarty pants!” from team mates when they know I have a test.
SciCheer: Do you have any advice for youngsters who might feel torn between following one dream (cheerleading, etc) associated with beauty or being a ditz, and following another (a STEM career) usually associated with, well, geeks?
Wendy: Don’t believe people when they tell you you can’t have it all. I, the Atlanta Falcons Cheerleaders, and every other professional cheerleader in the world are proof of that. There is no reason you can’t do it all! There will always be someone telling you something negative, no matter what you do, so just stop listening and work towards accomplishing your goals for yourself. And keep in mind that for ever one person who says you can’t accomplish something, there are 10 other people saying you can and thinking that what you’re working toward, whether cheer-related or academically, is amazing. Like my mom always tells me, reach for the stars!
SciCheer: Here, here! Along these lines, what advice would you give your 12-year-old self?
Wendy: DON’T GET DISCOURAGED. Believe your mom when she tells you YOU CAN DO IT!
SciCheer: Best cheerleading experience?
Wendy: My favorite singular moment is running out of the tunnel on the first game day and seeing thousands of waving Falcons flags. The best ongoing experiences are working with such talented women and getting to be so involved in the Atlanta community.
SciCheer: Best science-related experience?
Wendy: Having a paper I co-wrote published in the Journal of Biomaterials. (Engineering fibrin matrices: The engagement of polymerization pockets through fibrin knob technology for the delivery and retention of therapeutic proteins.)
SciCheer: WOW, congratulations! So, what are your plans for the future?
Wendy: In the next couple years I want to get a PhD in tissue engineering and then go to medical school. My ultimate goal is to be a reconstructive surgeon and work with the military to develop biological reconstructive technology for use in surgery… and to get married and have a big family!
Good luck, Wendy. We’re cheering for you!