Hillary: Indoor Football Cheerleader and GIS specialist at NOAA

Meet Hillary, a cheerleader for the indoor football team, the Washington Eagles and a GIS specialist at NOAA.
work1Why science?
When reflecting on my love of science and when that relationship began, I would have to say my Dad played an integral role in fostering my innate curiosity about science. My Dad is an electrician for a company that produces Lycra and I fondly recall him bringing home samples of string that I would play with tirelessly as he explained how my dancewear also contained this same “stretchy string.” As I grew older, I became more involved as he taught me about electrons and how to wire lamps. Those early experiences led me to apply to the Shenandoah Valley Governor’s School for Advanced Math and Science, which further developed my love for math and science.

You’ve been busy! You’ve got a B.S. and M.S. in economics, Graduate certificate in Geographic Information Systems (GIS), and are now pursuing a Ph.D. in coastal resources management. What led you to that particular academic track?
My academic path has definitely taken a few interesting turns. I started off as a chemistry major, but quickly learned that my true passion was examining human behavior quantitatively, which led me to pursue degrees in economics. While pursuing my M.S. in economics, I discovered natural resource economics. To me natural resource economics was a perfect blend of all things scientific that interested me – the human and natural environment. After completing my M.S., I decided to delve deeper into natural resource economics and more specifically coastal issues. In order to conduct my dissertation research on oil spills, I needed to be able to examine my data spatially. This need for spatial data analysis led me to complete a Graduate Certificate in GIS in addition to my Ph.D. in Coastal Resources Management.

You’re currently working at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other federal agencies to develop performance metrics for marine transportation. What sorts of metrics are you collecting, and what do you hope to learn from or do with the information you’re collecting?
My job duties have shifted away from the port effort at the moment, but it was an effort that entailed collecting census data, export and import data, ship traffic data, and environmental data. Currently, I am focusing on serving as a champion for Social Science and ensuring the rigor of NOAA’s economic statistics. As a champion or “cheerleader” for Social Science, I get to tell people who are not necessarily familiar with Social Science what tools and resources are available. I also have helped to start a “Social Science in the News” e-newsletter that keeps interested parties up-to-date on important Social Science news relating to NOAA’s goals. In my effort to ensure the level of rigor of our economic statistics, I act as sort of a referee, making sure all the studies we cite follow the rules of sound science. I also work to compile the studies into booklets for easy reference.

Best part of your day job?
I would have to say the best part of my day job is getting to be a “cheerleader” for Social Science for my agency. Part of my job is to educate people about Social Science and available tools and resources that are available to enhance our work through a series of Social Science 101’s. This is part of my team’s efforts to raise awareness regarding Social Science and institutionalize social science at NOAA.

You’re cheering for the Washington Eagles, an American Indoor Football team. How long have you cheered for them, and why did you try out to be a professional cheerleader?
I cheered for the Washington Eagles for one season and have cheered for Fusion Frenzy, an All-star team, for two seasons. I auditioned for both teams in order to do something active, challenge myself, and most importantly have fun.

How would you describe what you do for a living?
I do many different things as a part of my job. One part is that when people have a question I try to find the best answer for them. I do this by looking at a list of facts that I keep and by using interactive tools that even you can try! One of the tools I use is NOAA’s State of the Coast where you can find all types of neat data, such as coastal population. Sometimes the answers to the questions need some deeper digging and I use mapping software called ArcGIS. The goal of my work is to make sure that people always have the best available information.

What does it mean for you to be a scientist? 
I think as a scientist, I have a duty to society to provide the best available information in order to inform decision-making. A lot of my research looks at the relationship between the built and natural environment, and decisions about developing an area can impact the environment permanently. By helping to ensure smart decision-making, I am looking out for society today and for future generations. I hope to find ways to help decision-makers fully incorporate risk from potential oil spills into future analyses to benefit both oil companies and society.

How do the qualities that make you a great cheerleader benefit you in your science studies?
In order to excel as a cheerleader you have to be willing to put in a lot of hard work and the same goes for attaining educational achievements. Practice makes perfect, whether you are pulling a scorpion or multiplying by fractions. Also, having a positive attitude makes tackling everything in life much easier.

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 the best way to combat negative stereotypes is just by proving them wrong. Just by being a successful scientist and a cheerleader you demonstrate that they are neither accurate nor useful. I do not feel the need to tell people specifically that the stereotypes are untrue; they gather that from my success.

If you could rewind the clock and change your degree, would you? If so, to what and why?  If not, why not?
If I could rewind the clock I would not change my degree, but I would allow myself to have more time to decide what major I wanted to pursue. I am happy with the major I decided on because it led me to where I am today, but I do feel I rushed into the decision before exploring other options.

What advice would you give your 12-year-old self?
I would tell myself that even if you are not the best at something right now it does not mean that you cannot become the best in the future.  I would give this advice to myself because when I was younger I struggled with math and it used to frustrate me. It turns out I was just a little slower catching on than some of my classmates and now I am very skilled in mathematics.

What’s one thing people might find especially surprising about you?
I am naturally shy and it took a lot of work for me to come out of my shell. From a young age I engaged in public speaking and dance performances to overcome my fear.

Apart from work and cheering, what are some of your favorite activities?
I enjoy cooking and reading about new recipes. I am historically picky eater and love finding recipes to sneak in extra vegetables, such as roasted peppers and spinach pizza. I am also starting to get into couponing, and although I have yet to have the level of savings you see on TV I was very pleased with the toothpaste I got for free last week. I also enjoy crafting and am planning to take a knitting class.

What are your plans for the future?
In the future I plan to finish my degree and perhaps pursue another one! I am a lifetime learner and love learning about everything and anything. I would also like to volunteer more and am hoping once I finish my degree I will have more time to give back to the community.

Why do you want to be a Science Cheerleader?
I want to be a Science Cheerleader because I want to give back to the community, help shape the lives of young people, and I just love being a cheerleader for science! I want to help empower youth to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, or math. I have prospered so much from the intersection of cheerleading and science and I am excited to share that joy with others.