Today we get to hear from William (a.k.a. “Rock”), a male cheerleader who is pursuing a master’s degree in marine biology at the University of Maryland.
What turned you on to science and when?
I remember as a child that I wanted to be a dolphin trainer because I thought that was the only career I could have in marine biology, similar to what other children may think, but as I got older I was steered away from that goal by others’ views. When I told my father that I was switching to marine science from pre-med because I was not happy in pre-med, he told me something that I never thought I would hear. He told me that he did not say anything about me going pre-med because he wanted me to try it out by myself but he knew that I would be much happier and excel in marine science and was just waiting for me to make the discovery and he was right!
You just completed a degree in ecology and evolution at the University of Maryland .
Actually, I was Ecology and Evolution until my last semester in college when I realized that the biochemistry class that I took junior year was not going to count towards graduation unless I was a general biology major. I am choosing to pursue marine science in graduate school because I feel that the ocean has so much information that we do not know and we can learn more and more every day to help protect the future of our world through our oceans. Ecology and marine science are as closely related as you make them. Because I will be studying aquaculture, the work I will do will have a major effect on the ecology of the targeted areas. In some portions of aquaculture, fish that are reared in captivity are released in the wild to attempt to repopulate the wild population. As for evolution, I was not as interested in that as much as I was as ecology but it was included in the joint study.
Favorite and/or most challenging courses you’ve taken so far to prepare for your degrees? Why?
My favorite course was Freshwater Biology because it was the first biology course at the University of Maryland where I actually got hands-on experience with collecting and classifying organisms. It was the first class in which fieldwork was required and showed me how much I enjoyed it.
Best part of your studies?
The best parts of my studies were the internships that I had over the course of my college career. In one internship, I learned how to research and write a scientific paper by writing a review of reproduction methods within Cnidaria. In another, I traveled to South Africa and worked hands-on with Oceans Research to collect data on great white sharks and cetaceans (whales). Additionally, I worked with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and did photo analysis to obtain information on species and coral presence and absence in the North East Reserves in Puerto Rico.
You cheered for four years at University of Maryland as well as in high school and junior high. Why did you try out to be a cheerleader?
When I was in junior high, I began taking tumbling and gymnastics classes. At the same time, I began to have a growth spurt and soon realized that I was far too tall to be a professional gymnast (or have the skill level). In the gym there was an all-star cheerleading team and the coach talked me into trying out. With cheerleading, I was able to work the parts of gymnastics that I enjoyed, like tumbling, but then I was also able to use my strength and learn attainable skills to make me a better cheerleader and continue wanting to learn more skills.
What’s a marine biologist’s job like?
If I was to focus on one of my works as an intern, I would choose the great white project with Oceans Research. As a part of the internship, the interns had to collect data on great white sharks while on the boat as they came to the surface. Many locations within the bay were surveyed at different times of the day to determine whether or not there was a great white presence there. The week after, the locations in which sharks were seen are then surveyed again as focus locations. In the surveys, you need a GoPro camera to video tape the shark’s gender from under the boat, a high-quality camera to obtain shots of the shark’s dorsal fin (to properly identify the shark), data sheets to record the data, chum (sea water mixed with fish byproducts) to attract the sharks to the boat, and a rope, buoy, and tuna head to attract the sharks closer to the boat. A lot of time is spent on the boat collecting data but also after the data collection trips, we had to put the data into the computer for analysis.
Also, at Oceans Research we studied sharks, whales, and dolphins. The great white shark identification project was just one of the many projects that occurred at Oceans and one of my favorites. My other favorite was the aquarium husbandry where the interns learned how to maintain the organisms in the aquarium which included many types of fish along with pelagic and benthic sharks. The goal of this work is to determine the population of great white sharks in Mossel Bay, South Africa by determining during surveys which sharks were new sharks seen and which ones are repeat visitors.
What does it mean for you to be a scientist?
For me, being a scientist means to learn from the natural world to be able to change and help our existing world. Nowadays, people only seem to think about the now when the future is really important. In aquaculture, my aim will be for the sustainability for certain fish species that have been or are being over fished and to attempt to restore those populations in the wild. I would want to make our oceans healthier and also educate people on the importance of our oceans.
How do the qualities that made you a great cheerleader benefit you in your science studies?
In cheerleading, I have learned that you are only going to be as good as how hard you practice and the same comes true with science. In science, if you do not study or practice some of the most commonly used equations, etc., you will not be a good scientist. I have learned through cheerleading to know that hard work will get you where you want to be, as long as you keep trying as best as you can.
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]?
Breaking down the negative stereotypes could be started in a young age by telling young cheerleaders that even though these stereotypes exist, they are only stereotypes and if they have an interest in science, follow that interest. All throughout college, many professors have made comments like “I don’t see many cheerleaders taking my class” or “There aren’t that many athletes that have made it this far.” Although they are sometimes discouraging, those words really drove me to try harder in their classes to prove them that the stereotype of cheerleaders is not a valid one.
Best cheerleading experience?
My best cheerleading experience would have to be when my team competed at the National Cheerleading Association College Nationals my freshman year and we ended in 4th place. When we began competing that weekend, we started in 8th place and won Challenge Cup, which then put us in 6th place and allowed us to compete in the finals. The next day in finals, we hit our routine and ended in 4th place. Even though we did not win that year, 4th in the nation against some of the best teams in the nation felt like winning to me.
Best science-related experience?
The best science-related experience would have to have been my internship with Oceans Research in South Africa. It really changed my perspective on what field research was and showed me how passionate some scientists are about their work and how I wanted to be. It also showed me that I am able to do field work and that I do not want to spend my career in an office building. Additionally, I made some amazing friends and that’s how I actually met my roommate for next year who is also going to be studying at the University of Miami!
If you could rewind the clock and change your degree, would you? If so, to what and why? If not, why not?
I would have started the Ecology and Evolution track of biology as a freshman instead of starting out as Neurobiology and Physiology. As a freshman attempting to be premed, my major selection made sense but I also believe that the changes in my majors went along with the changes in myself, which really helped me learn about myself and where I want to be in life.
What advice would you give your 12-year-old self?
STICK WITH MARINE SCIENCE. You love marine science and the ocean and just because people are telling you that there is no money in marine science, you need to follow your passion and what makes you happy.
What’s one thing people might find especially surprising about you?
I pursued a double major in Spanish just because I liked the language and there is no connection with biology at all. It seems to work out now because I am moving to Miami and there are a lot of Spanish speakers but that was not a thought in my mind when I chose to pursue a double major in biology and Spanish.
Apart from work and cheering, what are some of your favorite activities?
I like to work out a lot and spend time outside, trying to stay as active as possible. I also like to spend time with my pet hedgehog, Gandalf. As for TV shows, I love American Horror Story and Adventure Time because it is time that I have to myself and to escape into a different place. I also really enjoy traveling and am on the road or in the air at any chance I can get because there is so much of the world that I have yet to see and experience!
What are your plans for the future?
This fall I am beginning a Masters degree at the University of Miami with a concentration in aquaculture. Once I finish my graduate degree, I plan on working in the field of aquaculture to try and better the production of commercial fish and try and assist the declining populations of overfished species in the wild.
Why do you want to be a Science Cheerleader?
I want to be a Science Cheerleader because it is important to show cheerleaders that there are other cheerleaders in STEM and that there are possibilities out there. Additionally, it is important for the younger generation to know that there are connections out there and that their skills sets that they have from cheerleading can be extrapolated into a successful STEM career.