Hello, Science Cheerleader fans! As part of NFL Playoff season, we are interviewing some of the current professional cheerleaders who are cheering their teams in the playoffs while also pursuing science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers. In this case, we had the opportunity to check in with Kelly, whom we profiled on Science Cheerleader previously when she was a PhD candidate in cognitive neuroscience and cheered for the New England Patriots! Today she’s got Ph.D. and M.A. degrees in Psychology with a Cognitive Neuroscience concentration; an Ed.M. degree in Mind, Brain, and Education; and B.A. degrees in Psychology and Spanish, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience AND she’s a member of the San Francisco 49ers Gold Rush Cheerleaders squad and teaching other PhD candidates in her field. Read on!
How did you get interested in science?
Each of the early moments I remember being interested in STEM is largely tied to those who taught me the subjects: I loved working on math problems with both of my parents from a very young age, and my early memories of loving science were strongest in 7th and 10th grade, when I had two particularly inspiring chemistry teachers. I first became interested in neuroscience during my sophomore year Cognitive Psychology class, in which I simply loved learning about human memory. I had always been intrigued by memory, perhaps because my parents and others had asked me hundreds of times how I am able to remember so many dance routines, but that course really bolstered my interest. Since then, I’ve been fortunate to work with several excellent scientists at Middlebury College, Colorado State University, Harvard, Notre Dame, Duke-National University of Singapore, and Boston College, who each fostered my interest in the topic. In fact, the mentors I have had are largely behind why I wanted to become a professor – to share this passion for science and learning with others.
Who had the most influence on your career choice?
Many people had profound influence on my career choice, but those that stand out most are my advisors at Middlebury College and my parents. I had always wanted to become a teacher of some sort, but it was my professors who ignited in me the passion to do research and teach at the college level. I loved the idea of not only being able to teach, but also to contribute to new knowledge, and I am forever grateful to them for taking the chance on me to let me intern in their labs. My parents also had a profound influence on my career choice – not necessarily in me choosing it, but in always supporting me. Getting a PhD takes a lot of dedication and perseverance, and my parents’ belief that I could achieve anything I set my mind to truly is the reason why I am here (both dance-wise and academically).
How would you describe what you do?
The majority of my time is spent teaching, analyzing data, and writing scientific publications. One of my favorite parts, however, is collecting data, for which I use various tools. I use an eye-tracker (to measure where participants are looking when I show them emotional scenes), polysomnography (a way of measuring electrical activity along the scalp to determine participants’ sleep stages, when they sleep overnight in the laboratory), and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI; a way of measuring brain activity to show which regions of the brain are active during various tasks – in my case, to show neural activity while participants retrieve emotional vs. non-emotional information). The goal of my work is to determine how sleep and stress affect emotional memory. For instance, my doctoral work showed that if you are stressed when you experience an emotional event (for example, witnessing a car accident), you will be more likely to remember it following sleep compared to if you are not stressed during that event. I am also interested in determining if particular sleep stages contribute to why sleep strengthens memory for emotional relative to neutral information.
How do you integrate your studies/career with being a professional cheerleader?
Being an NFL cheerleader takes an incredible amount of organization, responsibility, dedication, and time management—skills that not only are essential in my job as a professor, but also enable me to balance my career with Gold Rush. In fact, balancing Gold Rush with being a professor (and balancing the Patriots with being a PhD student) has made me more efficient than I was before. This season, I also had the special opportunity to integrate my two passions by giving a wellness seminar for my teammates on the importance of sleep (for memory, athleticism, health, and more)! It was so fun sharing with my teammates all the ways in which proper sleep hygiene makes us better NFL cheerleaders.
What’s your favorite part about your job?
My favorite part about my job is the one-on-one interaction I get with my research interns in my lab. It is so rewarding teaching them how to conduct and analyze data, bringing them to present their research at their first scientific conferences, and especially to see them ultimately graduate and pursue their own passions. Many of my students are now in PhD programs themselves, and to have played even a small part in their desire to continue their education and ultimately become professors themselves is extremely heartwarming and meaningful.
What’s been the best experience as an NFL cheerleader?
It is impossible to choose just one! As a Gold Rush cheerleader, my best experience so far has been the energy and positive attitudes all season – whether simply during our practices or the excitement of the 49ers doing so well and hosting the first ever playoff game at Levi’s Stadium! There’s something so inspiring and uplifting about being part of a team of 40 dancers, all of whom put their heart and soul into perfecting choreography and being the best they can be for the team. As a Patriots Cheerleader, I had the opportunity to travel to Arizona (my home state) for Super Bowl XLIX. During the days leading up to the game, I participated in many meaningful events, such as meeting young girls who similarly were interested in science and cheer (events with the Science Cheerleaders!) and being interviewed at the Arizona Science Center – one of my favorite places growing up, and coincidentally, where my junior prom was held! I also had breakfast with my parents on Super Bowl Sunday, a memory I will forever hold dear since it was my father’s birthday and unfortunately the last one I was able to spend with him before he passed away the following year. I forever will cherish that day and am grateful that the Patriots and NFL brought me home to celebrate my dad’s birthday and a Super Bowl victory.
What’s one thing people would find surprising about you?
One thing people might find especially surprising about me is that I had a very serious back injury several years ago that rendered me unable to walk for weeks and in pain for years. One of Boston’s best spine specialists said that I would never be able to run or dance again, and I immediately requested to change doctors because I did not want to be seen by anyone who did not believe in my recovery. I could not be more thankful that I kept my spirits up and decided to surround myself with healthcare professionals who believed that I would recover with the proper medical care and diligent adherence to physical therapy. It hasn’t been easy, but each step I take is a blessing and reminder to never give up without a fight.