Interview with Science Cheerleader Hilary Nicholson

Science Cheerleaders is an organization that works to confront stereotypes around cheerleaders and academics in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Members travel around the country to speak at schools, festivals, sports games, on TV, and more, to help connect groups traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields. We spoke with member and national coordinator, Hilary Nicholson, Ph.D., who is currently a medical oncology research fellow at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Medical School. Nicholson completed her Ph.D. at Brown University, where she also coached cheerleaders for the Brown Bears football team.

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Nicholson in her Ph.D. lab at Brown University.

1. Can you explain the idea behind Science Cheerleaders and how you got involved?

HN: The Science Cheerleaders are a group of over 300 current and former professional and collegiate cheerleaders who also have advanced degrees and careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. We aim to playfully challenge stereotypes surrounding what a scientist looks like and who can be an engineer, programmer, mathematician, etc., while also encouraging young girls to become engaged in STEM through citizen science projects and serving as role models ourselves.

2. The Science Cheerleaders have been featured guests of the White House and NASA, in addition to various schools and events across the country, for their work inspiring young girls to pursue STEM. What kind of events are planned for this year?

One of the best things about the Science Cheerleaders is that we’re everywhere! Young, aspiring scientists can reach out to us directly on our website to connect with a Science Cheerleader. We also make appearances across the country where we perform, facilitate

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Nicholson representing Science Cheerleaders at “Science at the Sixers” night at the Philadelphia 76ers game.

citizen science projects along with our partner organization SciStarter, and inspire young people to feel excited about STEM!

Look for us at the USA Science & Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C., on April 7-8, where we will be performing and meeting citizen scientists of all ages. Or in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on April 14 at the Cambridge Science Festival, where we will be demonstrating common cheerleading stunts and explaining the physics that makes them possible! You can also download our free eBook, The Science of Cheerleading, anytime from our website to learn about the connections between cheerleading and math. Also on our website, you can meet our Science Cheerleaders through interviews we conduct and you can keep an eye out for events near you (or request to have a Science Cheerleader visit your classroom, group, or event)!

3. We’ve heard from other scientists that kids oftentimes ask the tougher questions when it comes to science. Have you found this to be true?

I think this is absolutely true! It’s easy to lose sight of the big picture when you get caught up in the nitty gritty details of complex issues, which happens all the time in my work. Kids often ask questions that make you take a step back and think about a problem on a global scale. It keeps you grounded, and makes you consider the purpose of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it in the first place.

4. Since beginning your career in science, have you noticed a difference in the number of women pursuing the field?

Bringing more women into science is a job that has to start at the earliest stage. Studies have shown that girls lose interest in science for a variety of reasons even before they enter school, so we need to change the narrative that’s being directed at them from a very young age. We believe that having more female role models in science and diversifying the stereotypical image of what a scientist looks like will help young girls identify with professionals in the field. We try to connect young girls with Science Cheerleaders who share their interests or are from or in their hometowns, to help them relate and feel like they have someone cheering them on in science! Some of my most rewarding experiences with the Science Cheerleaders have been when I see young girls who I’ve met in years past, who are now excelling in science classes in school and who are excited about participating in citizen science projects that we’ve brought to their classrooms, girl scout troops, or cheerleading squads.

5. Do you have any tips for scientists who want to engage with younger audiences to encourage a career in STEM or a general curiosity and love of science?

Personally, the most impactful people in my career path have been those who are truly passionate about their work. When you share that passion with someone, it becomes infectious, and they get excited about what you’re doing, too! I would encourage anyone who is interested in inspiring young people to engage in STEM to reach out to the Science Cheerleaders and get involved, and also to visit the SciStarter site and choose a citizen science project that matches your passions. Collect a group to do the project together, and help solve real problems with top scientists. You can change a young person’s life by helping them take the first step!

– Seimi Rurup

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