Niki: Competitive cheerleader and future medical doctor.

Nicole U of Illinois Science CheerleaderHowdy, Science Cheerleader fans! Allow me to introduce you to a fellow Illinoisan, Nicole (Niki), a competitive cheerleader pursuing a science career.

You’re studying Interdisciplinary Health with minors in Spanish and Chemistry at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. What got you interested in that collection of subjects?
As a junior in high school, I took Introduction to Sports Medicine, and from there the rest is history! After having seen and had numerous injuries myself, everything fell into place. From that point on, I knew Orthopedics and Sports Medicine was going to be my goal, it was just a matter of choosing the degree. I-Health offers a wide variety of courses that intrigued me. It gave me the opportunity to not just study 1 field, but many aspects that can relate to athletics, science, and medicine!

You’re in the process of studying for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT)?
The MCAT is a standardized test that is a combination of physical sciences, verbal reasoning, writing samples, and biological sciences. Sitting for the exam takes about 6 hours, and requires extensive preparation. To help prepare, I have been taking all the courses that are recommended and tested on the exam. I will also be taking a preparation course and doing lots of practice exams and problems. The best form of preparation for the test is to just keep practicing, sound familiar? My goal is to become a doctor and work with athletes to bring them back to health after injuries to continue competing and playing in the sports they love.

Best part of your studies?
The best part of my studies is the constant learning and expanding of knowledge. I love being able to have study groups with friends and building relationships with my professors. My day job is a full time student, but I am also an intern and volunteer with the athletic trainers of my high school and the Chicago Rush, an Arena Football Team. Working with these programs allows me the opportunity to continuously learn from real life experiences and continue to develop my skills. I appreciate these opportunities and my education because I know in the future I can make a difference in someone’s life.

You’re a serious cheerleader and dancer—15 years of activity—doing everything from high school cheerleading to Illinois Stunt and Tumble. What do you find the most rewarding about all those activities?
The most rewarding part of being involved in cheerleading for 15 years would have to be getting to know my teammates and all the ups and downs along the way. Working hard for 15 to 20 hours a week is worth every minute when the team steps on the mat and does the best routine possible. I have also loved being able to break the stereotypes. This is something that has kept me motivated because I can be an example of being the complete opposite of the “cheerleader” stereotype by being a dedicated student and a cheerleader!

Which came first, your interest in science or cheerleading?
Since my cheerleading career began before I started school, I would have to say that my love of cheerleading came first; however, I have always enjoyed school. My dad, Tom, and I used to have “Tommy School,” and I can still remember my dad telling me that if you understand Math, everything else comes easy. We used to do math flashcards until I could get through the entire deck without a mistake! As much as I did not understand why he insisted so much then, I could not be happier now. Understanding math really did make everything else easier for me, including me getting a serious interest in science at a young age!

Nicole University of Illinois Science Cheerleader WorkHow do the qualities that made you a great cheerleader benefit you in your science studies?
I have learned through the competitiveness of cheerleading that you can never give up. No matter how difficult something is, if you try your best, you never fail. I also dedicate myself to everything I do to my best ability. No matter if I have three exams in one week or my flyer is falling to the ground, I will fight to do my best to do make sure everything ends up right. These qualities have shaped me to be the strong headed and driven student I am today. I want to be able to show others that concepts learned in a sport can relay to real life experiences.

There are stereotypes about cheerleaders in our society that make it seem unlikely that a cheerleader could be a scientist.  Obviously these stereotypes are untrue, and you are a great example of that.  How do you feel about breaking down negative stereotypes about cheerleaders? Have you faced a situation where you had to challenge a stereotype about cheerleaders [or scientists]?
I think that it is extremely important for these stereotypes to be broken down. These are simply negative connotations that are coming from people who do not understand or know cheerleaders or people in the science field. My opinion is that you have to love what you are doing, so if you love cheerleading/dance find a way to bring something you have learned or gained to your academics and future. Majority of my life I have been stereotyped as the “smarty,” but at the same time people would call me the loud cheerleader. People never knew how to connect the two, so they went to both extremes. In 8th grade, everyone voted for what profession each student in the class would be when they grew up, although I had great grades and could have been voted anything, I was voted the professional cheerleader. This is just one reason I hope that this sport we all love soon becomes recognized and people no longer stereotype those involved because there is so much more to the athletes who pour their heart and souls into each performance just like any other athlete. Who is to say that you can’t be bubbly and have brains too?!

Best cheerleading experience?
After 15 years of traveling the country from Las Vegas, Nevada to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, I have had some amazing experiences. After thinking about it, I would have to say my 2 years in Daytona Beach, Florida with Illinois Competitive Stunt and Tumble was my best experience. Stepping on the mat felt incredible, and to place 5th in 2011 and 2nd in 2012 was the icing on the cake! It was a culmination of years of hard work to reach the ultimate goal of NCA Collegiate National Championships!

Best science-related experience?
Ironically, my best science related experience actually incorporates my athletic background. At my high school graduation, I received the Senior Spirit Award. This award was given to the student that best represented the athletic department through academics, pride in the school, participation, and support of the athletic department. You may ask yourself, well how does that relate to science? If I had not taken Sports Medicine, I might not be in the field I am today.  That course guided me to find a passion in the medical field further than what I had ever thought before. It was one of the most rewarding moments to experience knowing how much of an impact I made on others, when many of them do not know how much of an impact they made on me.

What advice would you give your 12-year-old self?
Walter Payton once said, “Tomorrow is not promised to anyone.” This is a piece of advice I have heard my whole life and would give back to my 12-year-old self. You have to have the courage to be strong and know that if you do what you love, you will never fail. You can never let the fair of striking out keep you from playing the game, never give up, and be yourself. My final piece of advice would be to never let other people change the way you think about yourself.  You are you and nobody can change that, so embrace the brainy cheerleader within you and never stop trying to do your best.

Apart from work and cheering, what are some of your favorite activities?
When it comes down to it, my whole life has been academics and school, but there are many other things in my life outside of those too. I absolutely love spending time with my family, whether we are going to the Chicago Bears’ games or to the dog park with our Rhodesian Ridgeback, Staley. Something very close to my heart is my family’s volunteer work with the Walter and Connie Payton Foundation. The WCPF is an amazing organization that helps underprivileged families supply their children with school supplies, holiday gifts, and much more. It is rewarding to be able to give back to those who I know appreciate the assistance in any way possible.

What are your plans for the future?
In the future, I hope to be able to make a difference as a Sports Medicine Doctor after attending medical school. I would like to work with sports teams as their team physician. I have always loved being on the sidelines as a cheerleader, dancer, and athletic trainer. I want to continue that and be present to help athletes who love their sport as much as I love mine. Furthermore, I would like to work with young children to show them that there is more than one way to be yourself and being passionate about anything is never a negative thing, it is you being you.

Why do you want to be a Science Cheerleader?
To me, being a Science Cheerleader is so much more than a name. It is about showing people of all ages that there are more to the girls on the sidelines once you look past the poms and the cheers. I want to be a science cheerleader because I want young girls to know that it is okay to have multiple passions. There is always a way to combine academics with outside interests, whether that be sports or hobbies. I want to be a role model for the girls who experienced the same stereotypes that I did growing up.. Be who you want to be!

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