Theresa: New England Patriots Cheerleader and PhD Student in Chemical Biology!

Hi everyone, Science Cheerleader Hilary here to help you get to know Theresa, a PhD student in Chemical Biology at Harvard! Theresa cheered at Superbowl LI for the New England Patriots, and can’t wait to meet you at the USA Science & Engineering Festival at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center on April 7 and 8!

What turned you on to science and when? Both of my parents were engineers so science was always a big part of my education growing up. I participated in science fairs during middle school and high school with projects such as using kites to generate energy from the wind, adding jellyfish to sunscreen to improve the UV protection, or crushing up seashells to make a filter to effectively remove lead from water. This process of learning about the scientific method and finding creative solutions to problems made me excited about science. From these early experiences, I was convinced that I wanted to be involved in scientific research to help progress our knowledge of the world around us and tackle the challenges of disease.   

Why did you try out to be a cheerleader? I tried out to be a cheerleader for the Patriots in the spring of 2016, never imagining I would make the team! I had never done cheerleading before, but I was excited about the opportunity to learn something new.

Please describe what you do in your science career on a daily basis. Most of my time is spent in a laboratory. I design and run experiments to prove or disprove hypotheses we might have about a particular biological process. The kinds of tools I use on a daily basis are pipettes, petri dishes, cells, chemicals, and software to analyze data. The goal of my research is to understand the chemistry that occurs in cells and how those processes change in different diseases.

What does it mean for you to be studying in STEM? To me, science is about pursuing knowledge and discovering how the world around us works. Another important aspect of scientific research is understanding diseases and developing new therapeutic treatments. I want to be in science because I enjoy the process of solving these problems, discovering unknowns, and finding new molecular mechanisms of disease. I’m excited about being a part of the scientific community and I hope that my efforts and ideas will advance our understanding of biology and human disease in order to improve the lives of all people.

How do the qualities that make you a great cheerleader benefit you in your science career? I think perhaps the most important aspect of being a cheerleader is being a good teammate and supporting those around you. In science, discoveries rarely happen alone and being able to communicate and work together with a team towards a common goal is necessary for success.

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 and scientists? I think that breaking down negative stereotypes is important particularly as a role model for future scientists and engineers. Every young kid should be able to follow their passion, whatever that may be, and it’s a shame when stereotypes create barriers to pursuing one’s dreams. I knew that I was interested in science from a young age and my mom had been an engineer, so I knew that being a woman in STEM was hard, but possible. When other scientists heard about my decision to audition for the New England Patriots Cheerleaders, they were surprised since it’s definitely not the norm. But, I was eager to pursue this interest and in the end the science community was happy to cheer me on!

Best cheerleading experience? My favorite cheerleading experience was going to Houston for Super Bowl LI. I had the opportunity to share my passion for science at the Children’s Museum in Houston (as a Science Cheerleader!) as we held an interactive exhibit about gravity. Of course, the game itself was incredible and celebrating a great season with so many fans was an experience I’ll always remember!

Best science-related experience? My favorite science experiences are those moments in the lab when an experiment works or you get interesting data. It’s an incredible feeling when you can figure out a new piece of the puzzle. Another favorite experience is communicating science. Whether at a conference, or in writing articles, or talking to friends, communicating about science and sharing my excitement for scientific discovery is always so much fun!

What advice would you give your 12-year-old self? You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. I was always very shy and reserved growing up. I’ve had some exciting scientific and life experiences that wouldn’t have been possible if I didn’t step out of my comfort zone and try something new. From there, it’s just about being open to the serendipity of life and jumping at the opportunities that may come your way.

What’s one thing people might find especially surprising about you? One thing people might find surprising is that I am half Irish and half Chinese and have been Irish step dancing since I was five! Through Irish step dancing I have celebrated my heritage, but I also have had the opportunity to compete internationally in Ireland, England, Scotland, and Canada!