Meet Prajwal: Triathlete and Physicist

Prajwal exits the swim portion of an iron-distance triathlon after swimming 2.4 miles.Dr. John here… In our effort to playfully challenge stereotypes, Science Cheerleader has (not coincidentally) highlighted mostly professional cheerleaders who balance careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.

It turns out that scientists are doing all kinds of “non-traditional” things these days, from being professional cheerleaders all the way to policymaking, public outreach, and communications. One of the primary ways for scientists and engineers to pursue these careers is through the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which for 30+ years has been putting scientists and engineers in the government through AAAS Science and Technology (S&T) Policy Fellowships.

Today, I’d like to introduce you to Prajwal, an applied physicist and AAAS S&T Fellow now working at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And to tie it all back to Science Cheerleader, Prajwal is also a member of the Stanford University Triathlon Team from 2006-2009! He’s completed all triathlon distances (from sprints to iron-distance) and was also part of the leadership team in 2008 and 2009.

Take it away Prajwal…

Prajwal, who or what experience turned you on to science?

I was always interested in math and science growing up, having participated in science fairs in elementary school. I also took advanced math and physics classes in high school. I was always attracted to the intellectual challenge of problem-solving, and the thrill of gaining a better understanding of our world.

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 not feel torn! There is no real conflict between being a good athlete and a good scientist. Most of the best athletes on the triathlon team were scientists and engineers. Intelligence, physique, and scientific accomplishment are compatible with effective time management and hard work. Make a weekly schedule that allocates time for both working out and homework, and stick to it!

Did you find that stereotypes about athletes helped or hindered your studies or professional experiences?

I actually found people were impressed with my athletic accomplishments, and they definitely did not hinder my professional advancement. They may have even given me an advantage. So I was definitely taken seriously even though I was (and am) a triathlete.

How do you encourage people to become more interested in science and engineering?

During grad school, I volunteered for an after-school science enrichment program. I helped lead weekly lessons, organize an annual science Olympics, and also helped students with their science fair projects. Right now I am mentoring two students, one in 10th grade and the other in college.

How big of role can citizens without formal scientific training play in real scientific research?

This is a great question, and something I feel very strongly about. To my great annoyance, science is often portrayed as something only the special and initiated can engage in. The brutal fact (and one that practicing scientists discuss all the time) is that much scientific work is routine and ordinary, and many people can play a role. Of course, not everyone can do quantum mechanics or find the cure for cancer. But there are many people who can program computers and work in a machine shop.

Prajwal defends his PhD dissertation in Applied Physics from Stanford University

How can we demystify science and the scientist?

The public must realize that scientists are simply human, and that science (or engineering) is simply a useful tool. Far too often, scientists are portrayed as superhuman magicians capable of solving any problem. We are not. Rather, we are experts in a pretty narrow field and have skills that are usually helpful in other contexts. But this is also true of carpenters, lawyers, and historians. In the end, scientists are very similar to everyone else. We fall in love, we get angry and emotional, and yes, we also enjoy sports and athletics!

Science, as well as scientists, is also misrepresented. Science is not a magical instrument that has single-handedly changed the world. It has always existed as part of a team, and must be shown as such.

What are your plans for the future?

I want to help demystify science and scientists, while also helping citizens without a formal scientific training play a bigger role in science, and so we should keep talking.

Best athletic experience?

This one is easy! After finishing my first (and probably last!) iron-distance triathlon: 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, 26.2 mile run, I felt like I was on top of the world.

Best science experience?

This one is also easy! I was extremely happy to finally defend my PhD thesis. It was gratifying to know that all those years of hard work had finally paid off, and I had made a meaningful contribution to my field of science.

Favorite sports team and why?

I am from Philadelphia, and so I bleed the green and white of the Philadelphia Eagles.

Favorite scientist and why?

My dissertation research involved electromagnetics and so I am partial to the field’s founder, James Clerk Maxwell. I have always felt he is underappreciated by the general public.

More painful: sports/cheerleading injury or peer-reviewed paper rejected?

That’s a tough one, and depends strongly on the stage of my career. For my first paper, getting a rejection would have been more painful. At this stage of my career, I really want to stay in good shape and so a sports injury would be more painful.

Sign up to get Science Cheerleader updates by email!