Kelly: New England Patriots cheerleader pursuing PhD in cognitive neuroscience, Department of Defense fellowship

Kelly New England Patriots Science Cheerleader at Work

Why neuroscience?
I had always been intrigued by memory, perhaps because my parents and others had asked me hundreds of times how I’m able to remember so many dance routines, but that course is what really piqued my interest. Since then, I’ve been lucky to work with several great mentors at Middlebury, Colorado State University, Harvard, Notre Dame, and now Boston College, who have all fostered my interest in the topic. In fact, the excellent mentors I have had are largely behind why I am so determined to be a scientist and professor – to share this passion for science and learning with others.

Now, I am pursuing a Ph.D. in Psychology (specifically in Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience) at Boston College. I am in my third of five years, having recently received my M.A. from Boston College in 2013. Prior to this, I received an Ed.M. (Master’s in Education) in Mind, Brain, and Education from Harvard University in 2011, as well as a B.A. in Psychology and Spanish from Middlebury College in 2010.

Favorite courses you’ve taken so far to prepare for your degree?
My favorite course was an upper-level seminar on Human Memory at Middlebury College. I had already been researching memory in two laboratories at Middlebury at the time, but this course was definitely a factor in deciding to pursue memory research for my Ph.D. This is an especially meaningful course to me, as I will be teaching it soon (this upcoming spring) at Boston College! As far as my coursework for my Ph.D., the two classes I took on brain systems stand out as being my favorites – the human brain is simply amazing.

Neuroscience is a pretty broad field. What specific topic(s) are you studying?
I am currently researching how sleep and stress affect memory for emotional information. I think sleep is incredibly interesting because we sleep for approximately a third of our lifetime, yet we know so little about it! I am interested in emotional memory because so much of what we experience is emotional in content, and overall, I am motivated by the fact that my research has particular implications for understanding and preventing the development of post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD (e.g., in our military veterans).

 

Kelly New England Patriots Science CheerleaderThis is your rookie year with the New England Patriots. Why did you decide to try out for the team?
This is my first season as a New England Patriots Cheerleader, and I absolutely love everything about it – the practices, events, performances, and most of all, my amazing team! I decided to audition because I have been part of a dance team or company every year of my life since age 8, and I did not want it to stop after graduating from college! Even though my Ph.D. program is quite demanding, being a Patriots cheerleader makes me love my life in Boston even more than I would otherwise.

How do the qualities that make you a great cheerleader benefit you in your science studies?
One aspect of being a Patriots cheerleader that I do not think people realize is that it takes an incredible amount of organization and responsibility. It is very important to always be on time (meaning early!), be prepared (both in having choreography memorized and also having everything you may need for an event, practice, or performance), and to manage your time well. I would say that all of the above is true of being a scientist, minus the choreography of course! While cheerleading certainly takes a lot of time, I would say that it has made me more efficient to the extent that I am just as productive as a scientist now compared to before!

There are stereotypes about cheerleaders in our society that make it seem unlikely that a cheerleader could be a scientist.  Have you faced a situation where you had to challenge a stereotype about cheerleaders or scientists?
I feel like I break down negative stereotypes about cheerleaders nearly every time people I know find out that I’m a Patriots cheerleader. One of their first questions is always, “How are the other girls?” and they generally seem surprised to learn that we are all ambitious not only in our dance ability and physical fitness, but also in pursuing higher education and various careers. I think that by reading any of our bios, or even upon seeing how mentally and physically demanding our practices are, those stereotypes would be squashed instantly!

What’s been your best cheerleading experience so far?
I recently found out that I will soon be going to China to lead cheer clinics for children, among a variety of other exciting things! As of now, my best experience has been our trip to St. Lucia to shoot the 2014 Calendar. The trip was filled with countless events that I will never forget – raising money for and then visiting a hospital, a sunset catamaran tour, a trip to a volcano, my first performance in uniform, and more. However, I would say that the best part of it was having a full eight days to get to know my teammates outside of practice.

What’s been your best science-related experience?
My best science experience has been being awarded a three-year fellowship from the United States Department of Defense to fund my neuroscience research on sleep and emotional memory, along with the benefits that come with having independent funding. Being able to secure grant funding is crucial in becoming an independent researcher and tenured faculty member, so it is very exciting to me that I am off to a good start as a Ph.D. student!

What advice would you give your 12-year-old self?
I cannot even count the number of times that people have told me that I will not be able to do one thing or another. Dear 12-year-old self: I  can promise you that if you are motivated and organized enough, and willing to put in the effort, you WILL  excel in multiple domains!

What’s one thing people might find especially surprising about you?
One thing that people might find surprising is that my parents are my best friends.  

What are your plans for the future?
In the future, I plan to become a professor and independent researcher of cognitive neuroscience, ideally at a small liberal arts school like Middlebury College.

Why do you want to be a Science Cheerleader?
I want to be a Science Cheerleader because I think that this is a phenomenal movement to be a part of – showing the world that cheerleaders are so much more than a pretty face, and spreading the word about upcoming scientific research as well! I think it is especially important to empower young girls to devote their time to whatever career and hobbies they are passionate about, regardless of what others may think. While women in science and academia certainly face many challenges, I think that by being an example of a woman who is both a successful young researcher and a cheerleader shows that the activities that one chooses to do outside of the laboratory should not affect one’s reputation as a scientist.