Meet Rachel: A former Washington Redskins Cheerleader who enlisted in the Navy and now has her sights set on becoming an anesthesiologist. How does she synthesize these seemingly different worlds? She’s here to tell us.

Tell us about your job in the Navy and how science prepared you for that role?

I commissioned as an officer in the Navy out of college as a Registered Nurse in the Navy Nurse Corps.  I started out on a Surgical/OIF/OEF injury ward at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, MD for two years and switched to the multi-service Intensive Care Unit for the next two years.  In that time I was deployed to a small firebase in Afghanistan with a Forward Surgical Team operating alongside Army Special Forces.  Science and medicine go hand in hand.  Learning all we can about the different sciences from biology to physics has assisted me and continues to assist me in understanding –and staying committed to–evidence-based practice.

Tell me about your current field of study? Why did you choose it?
I am currently in graduate school for Anesthesia.  I fell in love with taking pain away, not only as a nurse, but when I worked at Bethesda on the wounded soldiers coming back from overseas.  We used the newest technology in pain control and I had a chance to see how much I could help control someone’s pain.  When I was deployed to Afghanistan that solidified my passion for anesthesia as I was able to “shadow” the CRNA (Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist) for the eight months I was there, while I was also applying to Anesthesia programs.  Putting people to rest, pain control, managing trauma, all were amazing amounts of autonomy and adrenaline rushes to the max for me.  It has been a great challenge applying to and getting into my program but I couldn’t be more excited about where I am now.

Do you find that your looks (or being a former cheerleader) helped or hindered your professional experiences? (Were you taken seriously?)
That is such an interesting question.  I was often called into different patient rooms when one of my fellow nurses or Navy corpsmen (similar to a civilian ‘’tech’’, but they are amazing and so capable of just about anything!) would slip about it to a patient and the patient wanted to meet me (or joke with me about their rival team).  It was great fun and most people just wanted to know what it was like.  I was surprised at the respect I received because we all know the stigmas associated with dance teams and cheerleaders.  I knew I had to prove that I belonged in the military and I could be taken seriously.  When I was deployed to Afghanistan I was quite firm in making sure I didn’t let it slip because I didn’t want to lose any respect I had gained.  I left the blow-dryer, the hair products, the make-up, all at home.  I figured if I looked au naturale no one would second guess me.  I wasn’t able to keep the secret for long, it leaked from a few places and ended up spreading like wild fire.  I suppose I had either proven my capabilities or folks were less superficial than I had suspected.  It turned out to be a great morale booster in the end!

Tell me a little about some of the favorite courses you took to prepare for your professional career.
I’m in a course right now that I am really enjoying.  It’s “Chemistry and Physics of Anesthesia.”  We’re learning about how all of the pressures and every symbol on the planet affect the vessels and body. Another great one was my Advanced Pharmacology course last semester.  I’ve taken several Pharmacology and Physiology courses before but this one was not simply rote memorization.  We learned more about drug interactions and drug metabolism, which I found very interesting.  The other that sticks out in my mind was Human Anatomy.  I was blessed with an undergraduate nursing program that utilized cadavers and that was an incredible way to learn the human body.  Learning about CT scan slices and every little muscle, tendon, bone, and organ I found incredibly fascinating.

Do you have any advice for middle or high school girls who might feel torn between following one dream (cheerleading or dancing) or following another (science/engineering) and the stereotypes that go along with them? 
Children can be so mean I must admit, it’s somewhat disappointing.  I was teased about everything as a child, and yes I was in that “ugly duckling” for years!  You have to stay true to yourself.  I projected myself in so many different directions as a child to find what my true love was – it was dancing.  If it is what you want to do, do it.  Being smart is powerful, you’ll find that out as you grow up.  It makes you confident and makes others know you respect yourself.  The only way others can be confident in you and respect you, is if you do that for yourself.  Take up a challenge, you’ll feel awesome afterwards!  Academia has never been an easy task for me, I have to work harder than others to make sure I’m taking everything in, but I feel so accomplished in the end the challenge is worth it.

Anything you’d like to add that you want people to know?
Try not to judge a book by its cover, because everyone has a story.

“Most awesome” experience as an officer in the Navy?
My deployment was actually my “most awesome” experience in the Navy thus far.  It was such a hard time to go through.  Very isolating, very difficult, very scary at times, but I wouldn’t change a moment and yes, I would do it again in a heart beat.  Most can’t imagine why we love to “go back” despite the hardship it causes our lives, but you don’t understand until it’s you.  I found out a lot about myself during that time as well as discovering what I’m truly capable of not only as a Naval officer but as a nurse.  I was able to do so much over there that was technically out of my “scope of practice.”  I had the chance to see and do things a very small percentage of nurses, let alone people, ever get a chance to experience.  It was simply gratifying to overcome the challenge, to help or change others’ lives.  I look forward to graduating and being able to get back on another deployment!

Anything memorable worth nothing during your RN schooling or now, as you continue your education and heads towards a PhD?
I still can’t believe I am where I am some days.  I have to pinch myself to know I am in Anesthesia school.  This is what I’ve been working so hard for for years.  I will graduate in May of 2012 (the program is 32 months straight).  After that I would very much like to continue on for my DNP (Doctorate of Nursing Practice).  The PhD will continue to be in the back of my mind.  I may go for that one day.

Thanks, Rachel. Something tells us, you’ll earn that Ph.D….

Check out other Professional Cheerleaders-turned-Scientists and Engineers.

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