Sara: Atlanta Hawks Cheerleader with a Master’s Degree

Sara NBA Atlanta Hawks Science CheerleaderSara’s got a serious passion for her career as a speech pathologist and endoscopist. Want to learn something a little surprising about Sara’s favorite science moment? Read on! [Updated 2/14/14]

So…why science?
I have been “turned on” to science since I was a little girl. My dad and I used to use the telescope and study the planets and constellations when I was three years old.  I got my first microscope set when I was only a tad older, and did not stop experimenting indoors or outdoors until it transitioned into a structured environment when I started school.  I used to carry around books about the human body and wanted to be a doctor since I was very young.  I was always in advanced science classes and loved the biological and anatomical sciences, thriving on a hands-on experience, and especially enjoying the learning achieved from dissections.

You’ve got a couple of degrees–a Bachelor’s degree in Speech Pathology and a Master’s degree in Communication Sciences and Disorders. Now, in addition to cheering for the Hawks, you’re working as a speech pathologist and endoscopist. I have a general idea of what a speech pathologist does, but what the heck is an endoscopist? 🙂
An endoscopist is a speech pathologist who specializes in swallowing disorders (and diagnostics/treatment of those disorders).  Anyone who might have difficulty with swallowing might be an individuals with a stroke, respiratory difficulties, head/neck cancer, traumatic brain injury, degenerative disease, dementia, and/or any cognitive change. I use endoscopy equipment (and my specialized training) to perform diagnostic swallowing evaluations on these types of patients. I travel to different hospitals, nursing homes, rehab facilities, and assisted living facilities to provide the procedures, and if at any time I do not have a procedure, then I am marketing to establish contracts with additional facilities so I can provide my services in more places to help more patients. With reference to the procedure, I insert a fiberoptic endoscope into one nostril, and down to overlook the throat area, and proceed through a protocol in order to determine the safest foods/liquids for the person to have, if the person is safe to eat or drink at all, if they have any anatomical abnormalities (possible cancers, cysts, etc.), and/or if they have other issues interfering with swallowing (gastrointestinal, respiratory, muscular, neurological, cognitive)—to name a few. After completing the procedure, I write a seven-page report (recommending the diet, strategies, further consults, etc. if applicable), and then educate the patient, staff speech pathologist, nurses, and/or family about the findings. Within the report I also establish a therapy plan for the patient in order to target the specific deficits I found and promote positive improvement for the patient.

What got you interested in speech pathology as a career?
When I was in high school, I was in a sign language class that I loved. My teacher was deaf and we had an interpreter. It was such an amazing learning experience. She educated our class on all professions related to the study of sign language. I took special interest in speech pathology and then began to do quite a bit of research on it as well. I have been obsessed ever since and have never wanted to change a thing. Every day that passes, I become more and more enthralled with my field of study, how I can make a profound impact on the daily lives of the patients and families I work with, and how I can further my own knowledge by keeping up with the new innovations that are constantly occurring in the profession.

Best part of your day job?
Every day I work is the best part of my job. I absolutely love the job I currently have as a medical speech pathologist and endoscopist because every day I use my education and degrees to make a positive and profound impact in the lives of others. I love the clinical aspects of the job, and the wonderful opportunities to educate others, expand my knowledge, problem-solve on my feet, and see something new everyday. I truly am thankful for the opportunity to interact with others (patients, families, nurses, therapists, administrators, etc.) on a daily basis and share my passion and knowledge with them. The best part of my job is also realizing that it is so important to never take something as simple as breathing, eating, drinking, tasting, or talking for granted (as I know it is easy to do). Daily, I see individuals that have lost the ability to do one or all of these things. I feel that my job is of value because I can directly affect the health and safety of my patients and also their abilities to maintain and/or gain these aforementioned functions back.

You currently cheer for the Atlanta Hawks. How long you’ve cheered for them, and why did you try out to be a professional cheerleader?
This is my rookie year with the Atlanta Hawks. I tried out to be a professional cheerleader because it was in my heart to do so. I cheered in high school (competition/football/basketball) and college (football/basketball), and then went to graduate school for my career. During that time I still kept up with fitness, but had no time to cheer (because I also had five part-time jobs)! When I moved to Atlanta after graduating with my Master’s, I tried out because something in my heart was urging me to continue with cheerleading, but now on a professional level. I didn’t make it the first time, but this is why persistence and following your heart is key. 🙂 I also wanted to be a professional cheerleader because I love to perform in front of a crowd, love the sports themselves and getting to be so close to the action during games, and love to dance and cheer. More importantly however, I wanted to cheer professionally because I want to be an inspiration to young cheerleaders, represent a community/state/team/sport in a classy and professional way, and make a positive difference in the lives of those around me.

What’s a typical day like for you if you’re working and cheering?
A typical day involves (usually) teaching a 6 a.m. spinning class (I am also a spin instructor), working till about 4:30 or 5 (depending on the day), and then going to practice or a game. I also love hot yoga, church/bible study, and other fitness/outdoor activities if I ever have a free night. I am thankful that my job is flexible in that it allows me to plan my own schedule. So I will usually schedule fewer patients/work time on a game day so that I can get to the arena on time in full game attire, and then other days I will work longer hours in order to make up for the time.

How do your fellow cheerleaders accept your interest in science?
They are very accepting of my career path and I’ve explained exactly what my job entails to several of them because they were curious. I’ve also given special advice to my teammates if they have questions about family members, friends, or themselves with regard to a condition I would treat.

Do you find that stereotypes about cheerleaders helped or hindered your studies or professional experiences?
I think that stereotypes about cheerleaders do hinder others’ perceptions of me at first. However, it is easy to realize once you get to know me that I am very educated, professional, and skilled in my science career—as any cheerleader can be as well. It is just a process of taking another’s first perceptions of you and proving them wrong through your actions, words, and the way you present (and represent) yourself.

Best cheerleading experience?
My best cheerleading experience has to be making the Atlanta Hawks. Professional cheerleading is something I have worked very hard for, and have put an ample amount of time, money, and effort into this goal. It is a dream and something I chose to follow despite setbacks, and it required great persistence, motivation, and perseverance. To achieve a goal such as this is truly an amazing experience, and now getting to actually partake in every facet of the experience is wonderful (community service, public appearances, games, practices, etc.). Generally however, I love how cheerleading has allowed me to use the skills I have been blessed with to entertain others and make a difference. I love realizing how you never know whose life you are affecting by doing your job as a cheerleader—you may never know the positive impact you could be having on a little girl, elderly person, or fan in general. That is why I know it is so important to uphold the position I have been given with class and a great attitude.

Best science -related experience?
I think my best science-related experience was dissecting a cat. I learned so much from this experience with regards to anatomy and could truly apply knowledge from real-life anatomy to the anatomy questions presented in writing (aka on a test). I also loved my time with patients who have had a laryngectomy. Getting to wear a head-light and then insert and/or remove their prosthesis for a tracheoesophageal puncture (used so the person can have their own voice even with their voicebox being removed) was life-changing. And the first time the patient could produce their own voice partly because of my role as their speech pathologist was incredibly special.

If you could rewind the clock and change your degree, would you? If so, to what and why?  If not, why not?
No way!!! This degree is my passion and what I know I have been blessed to pursue. And my current job is basically my dream job. It took a lot of effort and work and time to get to this place and I would never trade any of that either. Each step of the journey has been key in getting me to where I am today, and I hope that the journey only continues on into the future.

Do you have any advice for youngsters who might feel torn between following one dream and another?
Of course!! YOU CAN DO BOTH!!! And doing both is the perfect combination of your two passions (being able to thrive at the same time)—and you making a positive difference while pursuing these two passions. Also, it is almost a challenge to defy the stereotype of a cheerleader—so go ahead and do it!! Show the world that you can be a smart, intelligent, science-loving cheerleader—serious about her career and her cheerleading—AND inspire others to do the same!!! 

Along these lines, what advice would you give your 12-year-old self?
I would advise my 12-year-old self to follow my dreams and let nothing get in my way. To really listen to what was in my heart, and to pursue these things. To not be caught up in what and who is “cool”, but instead know that success and happiness come from figuring out who YOU are, and what your purpose is—and of course, achieving small goals along the way while also having a positive effect on others. 

What’s one thing people might find especially surprising about you?
People might find it surprising that I studied abroad in Europe for my senior thesis (in undergrad), and while there I chose to hang-glide 7,000 feet up over the Swiss Alps (AND LOVED IT!). Life is too short not to try anything and everything you want to accomplish, and there is no time like the present!

What are your plans for the future?
My plans for the future are to continue my passion for my career, furthering my knowledge every day and making a positive difference in the lives of my patients (and all those I interact with on a daily basis). I also believe that no matter what, I think it is important to always pursue every dream that is within my heart and continue to grow in my Catholic faith everyday. In addition, I want to continue cheering professionally, and also continue to be a positive role model while upholding this position. I plan to maintain and improve my fitness and continue to have a good health/wellness-type view on my daily life. I definitely want to continue being very active with charity events and fundraisers to help those less fortunate than I am. Additionally, I do plan to someday get married and have my own family, hopefully instilling these same ideas within my own children.

Why do you want to be a Science Cheerleader?
I want to be a Science Cheerleader because I want to be a positive role model for children, showing them that education, science, and careers are incredibly important—AND that is very possible to pursue a passion for these and for cheerleading at the same time.

What’s new?I have been working at an ENT [Ear, Nose, and Throat] private practice for over a year now, still as a medical speech pathologist but now specializing in the voice, head/neck cancer, and swallowing disorders–still doing endoscopy as well. I’m also developing The Voice Institute (within the practice), which is a specialized program for the professional voice that is focused on forming relationships with local vocal coaches/teachers in the area and truly collaborating utilizing the medical and vocal perspectives to grow the “vocal athlete” into a strong and healthy performer. In addition, I’ve recently decided to pursue my PhD and hopefully one day soon become a professor and do research.

  • Grandma

    Sounds to me that Sara knows where she is going and who she is.  What an uplifting example she is.