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.

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From the Archives: How Neuroscience Captured the 21st Century

When researchers Arvid Carlsson, Paul Greengard, and Eric Kandel shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2000, we commissioned memory researcher John H. Byrne to write an essay on what their achievements meant to the field. In his 2001 essay, “How Neuroscience Captured the Twenty-First Century’s First Nobel Prize,” Byrne starts with a good chunk of Kandel’s acceptance speech; gives a cogent review of each scientist’s separate path and how their discoveries eventually entwined; describes how this changed the field; and considers what it might mean for the future. As you might suspect, it’s a long essay, but full of gems.

Whether overdue or just in the nick of time (as the Decade of the Brain closes), this Nobel Prize celebrates an achievement different in kind from previous observation, speculation, and investigation of the brain. For the first time, an unambiguously mental phenomenon—memory—has been explained in wholly material, mechanical terms. The hypothesis of a separate, nonmaterial, otherworldly realm has become superfluous. A banquet is not the place to spin out these disturbing implications, but Kandel does acknowledge them, for those who will hear, by returning to where his story began—“Know thyself.”

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The Science Cheerleaders

When I read a dense, technical science article or listen to a researcher's jargon, I am often convinced that scientists speak a different language and maybe even come from a different planet. This language "problem" between scientists and the general public can make it hard for scientists and advocates to convey important scientific messages and discoveries. Without public understanding and support, scientific research and discoveries remain underfunded and misunderstood.

So I was intrigued to hear some creative new ideas for outreach during an event hosted by Science Online NYC titled “Matching medium and messengers to meet the masses.” The discussion was carried on by four panelists: Darlene Cavalier, the woman behind “Science Cheerleaders;” Jamie Vernon, a science policy analyst; Molly Webster, one of the producers for live programming at the World Science Festival; and Kevin Zelnio, the assistant editor and webmaster for Deep Sea News

Each panelist described successes and failures in engaging a broader audience in science. As well as popular strategies including live events such as the World Science Festival; the use of social media like Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr; and blogging; they have tried more creative and interesting approaches. One idea, Science in the Pub, involves scientists talking about their work informally and tapping into their passion for science while also tapping into the keg and their affinity for alcohol. Another panelist started a program where University of Texas researchers explained their dissertation to a twelve-year-old. That program turned out to be an especially rewarding challenge for the scientists.

The strategy that stood out to me was Darlene Cavalier’s “Science Cheerleaders” program. Cavalier organizes events, videos, and other venues where cheerleaders with science backgrounds essentially cheer for science. Cavalier is a former cheerleader who has a passion for science. Like me, she wants to promote and discuss science with the public but lacks a technical background. Without a Ph.D., Cavalier found the world of science could be a bit intimidating at times. To combat that sense of intimidation, she brought her passion for science and cheerleading together.

What started as one video is now a national movement. After the initial Science Cheerleading video, Cavalier was bombarded with interested cheerleaders from across the United States. She found that more than 100 professional sports cheerleaders have degrees and backgrounds in science and engineering. The genius of Cavalier’s mission is that it engages segments of society (sports and cheerleading) that are unfortunately, more often than not, removed from the world of science. The program has been a major success. In fact, the Science Cheerleaders recently broke the record for largest cheer:

Science is certainly something to cheer about and it needs more cheerleaders. As I learned from the discussion, scientific discoveries carry no social good if few people know or care about them. It was inspiring to hear some fresh ideas for engaging the public.

SONYC is a monthly discussion organized by Nature.com and Ars Technica, hosted at Rockfeller University.

–Simon Fischweicher

Feast, but visions of famine, at NIH

While the recent deluge of stimulus money to fund science research is
very welcome, the chief of the National Institutes of Health said on Monday,
the devil is in the details—will the support continue?

“Science is not a 100-yard dash—it’s a marathon,” said Francis Collins
during an address at Neuroscience
2009
, the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting in Chicago. Collins is the first sitting NIH
chief director to speak at the annual meeting; his talk attracted several
thousand of the more than 30,000 neuroscientists and others who have converged on McCormick Place this week.

There could not be a more important time to reinforce the importance of
science than now, as the president and Congress begin the difficult debate over
the next fiscal budget, Collins argued. Most experiments started now won’t be
completed in the two years covered by the stimulus grants, he pointed out. They
“are down payments on results in the future,” and “to take away the fuel
midstream would not lead to good outcomes” for the research or the researchers,
he said. “Science doesn’t resonate very well with feast-or-famine circumstances.”

In the past year, the agency received around 20,000 applications for
stimulus challenge grant funding; it had expected several thousand. “We weren’t
able to fund but a percentage,” Collins said, “but were inspired by the
outpouring of creativity.”

Continued funding in 2011 and after will be its own challenge given the
economic downturn, however, and the agency could again find itself in the all-then-nothing
cycle it suffered this past decade. Funding doubled between 1998 and 2003 and then
was flat for the next five years, letting inflation carve “a deep loss” in
money available for grants, he said.

After just receiving $10 billion in stimulus funding for the 2008-2009
budget, funding more 12,000 research projects, “I do think there’s some risk”
that the cycle will repeat, Collins said. He urged scientists and science
advocates to “make the case that science research really is important to the
nation’s health, its economy and to the rest of the world’s health.”

With its current funding, Collins said, NIH is supporting its bedrock,
basic science research, but he also is looking to take advantage of five “areas
of opportunity”:

  • Applying “high-throughput technology,” such as imaging, genomics,
    computational methods and nanotechnology, to answer basic questions.
    Instead of small projects teasing out one or
    another component of a biological system, “we want investigators to be able to
    ask questions with ‘all’ in them,” Collins said, for instance, “what are all
    the variations in the genome linked to a certain disease?” Researchers
    didn’t have the tools earlier to ask these wide-ranging questions; now that
    they do, he said, NIH should encourage them to take advantage.

  • Encouraging research translating bench research to potential
    therapies for people
    . Translating
    a basic-research discovery into a clinical application is a long and complicated process
    that used to be mainly funded by private pharmaceutical firms. Collins said NIH will
    target money for more investigators to tackle the climb toward clinical
    applications, including the “so-called valley of death,” or first-stage
    trials in humans, a traditionally difficult stage to get funded.

  • Contributing to the science of health care reform. The institute will continue to offer
    policymakers and the public health information that is based on evidence,
    including research that compares the effectiveness of current therapies. “NIH
    has been doing these studies for a long time,” Collins said, including reports
    on treatments for diabetes and schizophrenia.

  • Encouraging a greater focus on global health. “We’re taking the mandate to use soft power
    instead of hard power and applying it to scientific research,” he said. For
    example, he cited a cooperative project by the University of Virginia and
    Brazil researching the effects of childhood nutrition and cognitive
    development.

  • Reinvigorating and empowering the biomedical research community. By stimulating innovation and supporting young
    investigators, Collins said, the U.S. can retain the bright young and
    mid-career scientists who might not otherwise stay in the field. “We know there
    is great interest and pent-up capability,” he said. Yet with funds threatening
    to dry up in two years, those people may start wondering if they made the right
    career choice and be tempted to abandon research.

Collins also separately met with groups of postdoctoral students, with
reporters and with the board of the neuroscience society. “We are listening,”
he said, urging people to e-mail NIH-LISTENS@nih.gov
with questions, critiques and suggestions. “We are at a very exciting time
scientifically,” he said, and “neuroscience is one of the areas of greatest
excitement in science.

“Clearly, our community, after five years of flat budgets, came back to
life with this opportunity provided by the recovery act, and put forth some bold
and brilliant new ideas.”

-Nicky Penttila

Outreach, education key themes at SfN

It was only appropriate that one of the first events of this year’s Society for Neuroscience meeting in Chicago focused on neuroscience education and outreach efforts, particularly those of Brain Awareness Week (BAW). SfN president Tom Carew chose education as the defining theme of his tenure as leader, and BAW is the most prominent annual event promoting the brain sciences to the general public around the globe.

More than 200 students, teachers and scientists packed a session room at McCormick Place to hear from Carew and Nick Spitzer of the University of California, San Diego, on how SfN is helping to promote educational activities and how those efforts might change in the future. “Brain awareness has not only expanded but continues to grow,” said Spitzer, citing a record number of groups, 33, who presented posters of their outreach work at the session. Part of that growth, he added, is the wealth of material–much of it in now in convenient digital formats–available from SfN and other groups like the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, which co-sponsored the event.

BAW sfn

Carew described his experience speaking at a teacher’s conference, which showed him that teachers are hungry for detailed knowledge of the brain. “They were so thrilled not only that I was talking science to them but that I was not talking down to them” by simplifying the material, he said. Teachers can be powerful allies in brain outreach activities by acting as “second messengers,” he said. “If you get them involved, then after that the whole school comes on board, and then the school board comes on board.”

Last week, SfN released a report from a June summit on neuroeducation, a fledgling field that combines neuroscience, psychology and education research to create better teaching methods. The field faces many challenges, as the different disciplines work in vastly different ways and use different vocabularies, Carew said, but the experts at the summit have outlined definite steps to take to advance the field. He’s particularly optimistic about the field’s prospects because of SfN’s membership, which recently passed 40,000, about one-third are graduate students or postdocs. While many of them will pursue traditional academic careers, other career options are increasing, he said, including neuroeducation.

Also featured at the event were several special attendees, who had received travel stipends to the meeting in reward for their outreach efforts or accomplishments. Two undergraduate students–Allison Batties of Lycoming College and Michael Miller of Binghamton University–received SfN/Faculty for Undergraduate Neuroscience awards for their education efforts. In an interview after the event, Batties, who organized a series of hands-on activities for middle schoolers called “Brains Are Us,” said her first SfN meeting has been an amazing experience so far. “There’s a lot to look at–I’m excited to wander around,” she said. “Since I attend a small liberal arts college, without this award, there’s no way I could have gotten funding to come here.”

Michael Reed, head coach of the science olympiad team at Grand Haven High School in Michigan, echoed her sentiments. SfN paid the way for him and two of his students, Kent Brummel and Blake Shultz, to attend the conference as a reward for teens’ first-place win in the health sciences category of the national competition. “The focus on education seems appropriate,” Reed added. “There is an awful lot of information available for people to learn about the brain. The key is to try to get people to think about it. It’s information people need to know about, to be better students or teachers.”

-Aalok Mehta

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