Janel: College Cheerleader and Rider of Storms

Janel Collegiate Science Cheerleader at WorkGreetings, Science Cheerleader fans!  Janel is a graduate student in geography who already has a B.S. in Meteorology and has had some exciting times flying through hurricanes for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Read on!

So what got you into science?
I have always enjoyed school since I was a little girl and my strongest subjects were typically math and science. Because of this, I had the opportunity in 5th grade to attend Space Camp in Huntsville, AL. The experience influenced my continued interest in science and when people would ask what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would respond with, “One day I want to work for NASA.” 15 years later, I am a graduate research assistant working on a NASA funded research grant; proof that dreams do come true.   

You earned a Bachelor of Science in meteorology from St. Louis University and are currently pursuing a Master’s degree in geography through the University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC). What got you interested in meteorology?
When I was a very young girl living in the Midwest, experiencing thunderstorms and tornadoes absolutely terrified me. My father was always interested in the weather and would always be outside watching storms roll in, as I would stand at the door begging him to come inside where it was safe. I distinctly remember at the age of 8 experiencing my first tornado and shaking so badly that I could barely walk. My family and home were both spared by the tornado but I remember that day vividly. From that moment on I began collecting and reading books on the weather. My very first weather book that I still have as a keepsake was titled “Hoppity’s First Thunderstorm” and was about a bunny rabbit that faced his fears as he experienced his first thunderstorm. I believed that the more I learned and understood about the weather, the less I would fear it. Now I chase it.

You mentioned when you contacted us that you’ve flown aboard NASA DC-8 aircraft for hurricane research. That sounds pretty wild. What was that experience like, and how did you get the opportunity to participate in that work?
Flying onboard the DC-8 aircraft through hurricane Earl in 2010 was the best experience of my entire life. Part of my responsibility was to participate in the NASA Earth Science hurricane field experiment titled Genesis and Rapid Intensification Processes (GRIP). It was conducted to better understand how tropical storms form and develop into major hurricanes. My duty onboard the DC-8 aircraft was to operate the dropsonde system, which included the release of these instruments from the plane and tracking them as they fell to the surface, creating a vertical profile of data including temperature, pressure, humidity, and horizontal wind speed and direction. The flights ranged in duration for up to 10 hours at a time. The flights were slightly rough but the worst turbulence was experienced passing through the eyewall which is not for the weak of stomach. The most incredible moment, however, was passing into the eye of the hurricane and seeing the sun shining, the ocean surface below, and the wall of clouds circulating around the plane. It has been very rewarding since returning from the field to analyze some of the data that I have collected myself and see it put to use in an attempt to further the understanding of hurricane genesis and intensification.

Best part of your studies?
The best part of my studies is that I am able to interact with so many members of the scientific community, create my own ideas, and further analyze the ideas of those before me. Science is an ever-evolving field. There are many unanswered questions, a whole world, universe, and beyond, that is waiting to be explored.

What was a typical day like for you when you were studying for your degree and cheering?
My days were typically very long. I would attend classes beginning at 8 or 9 in the morning, continuing to the late afternoon with lab courses. Then I would generally spend time after class working on homework, projects, and studying through dinner until workouts and practices which were from 7-10 pm. There was even a semester when workouts would be at 5 am, and during that time I held a part-time job working those evenings and on the weekends when there wasn’t a game or performance. Needless to say, I was a very busy girl, but all the hard work and dedication has contributed to my success along with the unconditional love and support from my family and friends.

Janel Collegiate Science Cheerleader

Best cheerleading experience?
Being part of a Saint Louis University tradition, being part of the inaugural basketball season of the Chaifetz Arena, and cheering to a sold out crowd of over 10,000 fans was the best cheerleading experience of my career.

Do you find that stereotypes about cheerleaders helped or hindered your studies?
From my own experience, stereotypes have both helped and hindered my studies. It has helped me because the stereotype that cheerleaders are very outgoing and able to interact with audiences helps with expectations of presentations and communicating my research. However, I would say that it hinders my studies because it is easy to not be taken seriously in such a male-dominated field. Being a cheerleader, I was stereotyped as someone who cares more about attention and appearance rather than brains and it is easy to be written off as a “dumb cheerleader.” Just because I wear make-up, curl my hair, and paint my nails, does not mean that I don’t take my research very seriously. For this reason, I tend to not introduce that I was a cheerleader until after I have established a professional working relationship with others in my field.

You cheered throughout high school and your undergraduate studies. Are you still performing?
I am no longer performing, but I try keep up with my dance technique by attending a local studio. I did audition for one professional team recently, but now that I am becoming more familiar with the teams in my area, I do intend to audition again in the future. I have a passion for performing and often find myself missing it.

Do you have any advice for youngsters who might feel torn between following one dream and another?
Be yourself and follow your dreams. Create your own pathway, and show the world what you have to offer. Don’t become the stereotype. Break the mold. I would not be the person I am today if I hadn’t opened up to the idea that you CAN be a “geek” on the cheerleading squad. Your attitude is most important. Be proud of what you do and never let anyone make you feel less because you want to do more. I am where I am today because I did not let stereotypes define who I was.

Along these lines, what advice would you give your 12-year-old self?
I would tell myself to never doubt my abilities. I am smart, I am talented, and there is nothing wrong with being both. I don’t have to choose.

What are your plans for the future?
I plan to continue working in the field of meteorology. I am very interested in natural disaster preparedness and response. After the devastating tornadoes of 2011, and hurricanes such as Katrina in 2005, I want to make sure people are properly warned and understand the impending danger of weather extremes. This involves further research into the understanding of these extreme events as well as the communication between the science community and the general public. I want to help make a difference in the number of injuries and lives lost each year to natural disasters.

Why do you want to be a Science Cheerleader?
I recently had a conversation with a colleague about being a female in a male-dominated field. She shared with me how I helped her to feel that it was okay to be a “girl” and take pride in her appearance; that we didn’t have to be defined by the stereotypes of women in a science career. I want to help inspire young girls to have the confidence to pursue STEM careers; to remind them that no dream is too big, and it’s okay to break the mold.

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