Here’s Raecca (Rae): Science Cheerleader, blogger, and SciStarter managing editor (among other things!)
Hi, Rae! What got you into science?
As a high school student, I enjoyed my math and science classes. If you gave me the option to solve an equation or read a novel, I would choose the equation every time. My senior-level science teachers were able to explain concepts in a clear manner, but they also infused humor whenever they could. My senior level math teachers were all women and that influenced me as well.
You’re an All-But-Dissertation doctoral student in bioinorganic chemistry from McGill University (Canada). What got you interested in that particular field?
As an undergraduate student, Inorganic Chemistry was one of my favorite courses. Metals are able to form unique bonds with other atoms, and that results in interesting molecules with unique shapes and properties. In the lab, these molecules tend to be colorful, and oftentimes you can observe the reaction by observing the color change in your flask. When I started graduate school, I learned that many of these reactions were biologically relevant, and I wanted to learn more about them.
Favorite and/or most challenging courses you took to prepare for your degree? Why?
I once audited an X-ray Crystallography course in graduate school and I thought it was one of the most difficult classes I had ever encountered. It involves a lot of physics (to understand how the light diffracts off a crystal to determine its electron density), and I also had to learn how to manipulate software to convert that data into a 3D picture of a molecule.
I could take a guess on what bioinorganic chemistry is, but why don’t you explain it and what it does?
When you think of chemistry’s role in biology, you often think of organic chemistry (carbon-based chemistry), because so many biological molecules, such as DNA and proteins, are organic. But many proteins contain metals, and they usually play a vital role in the protein’s function and activity. For example, red blood cells contain hemoglobin, which transports oxygen throughout the body. Hemoglobin contains four iron atoms, and each iron atom binds to an oxygen molecule. The iron holds the oxygen in place and prevents it from reacting with anything else before it reaches its destination. Metal-containing molecules can also be used as therapeutic drugs. Cisplatin is a platinum molecule that is used to treat prostate cancer, and (surprisingly) arsenic compounds are under investigation as possible cancer drugs.
You cheered for McGill University from 2004 to 2006. Why did you try out to be a cheerleader?
I started cheerleading in 1998 as an undergraduate freshman in college. There was a dance party during my first week at school, and as I was dancing, someone who was already on the cheerleading team asked if I would be interested in trying out. The rest is history, and I spent two years with an amazing group of people that really taught me how to love cheerleading. When I started graduate school, I decided to join the school’s cheerleading team so I could meet other people outside of chemistry. Each year, the team’s skills and level of difficulty grew, and I am so proud to have been part of that process.
Which came first, your interest in science or cheerleading?
My interest in science definitely came first. I was a scrawny, nerdy kid and teenager, so I never thought that I was “cheerleading material.”
What’s being a chemist like?
I think that chemists are the chameleons of science because we are capable of working in so many industries and fields. Some chemists work in “traditional” chemical companies and work in a lab to manufacture or develop new formulations. Chemists also work in the pharmaceutical industry to develop and improve drugs, or in biological companies to identify chemicals in biological samples or drugs. Working in a lab involves a lot of time management and planning. Chemical reactions can take hours or days to complete, so you have to allocate your time wisely and multitask. I also think that lab work is very mechanical. You use a lot of equipment and tools. I used wrenches and screwdrivers almost as often as I used flasks.
What does it mean for you to be a chemist?
I went to a career-networking event and one panelist said that, no matter what you do in life, you never stop being a scientist. I completely agree. I think that my chemistry education has been helpful in so many ways. I have the tools to critically evaluate something before I believe it, and I am never comfortable saying or writing something without knowing I have some evidence to support it. I also think that I have a role in society to educate and promote science. I find that there’s a backlash against certain science and medical advances, and the health, safety and political consequences are huge. Most people do not have the education (or patience) to go through scientific literature, and unfortunately make decisions without really knowing what’s going on. I almost feel that it is my duty to bridge that gap, and “translate” scientific material so that the average person can understand it and make an informed decision.
How do the qualities that made you a great cheerleader benefit you in your science career?
As a cheerleader, I had to react quickly and think on my feet, especially when we were building pyramids or working on new skills. I was usually at the top of a pyramid or stunt, and sometimes I needed to make a quick decision to come down from it because it felt unsafe. Those skills are extremely useful in science; when I was trying out new reactions, there was always a potential for something to go wrong and I had to quickly figure out how to stop a reaction or prevent something dangerous from happening. As a coach, my team had experienced cheerleaders and rookies who had potential but were new to the sport. I had to explain routines and stunts so that everyone was on the same page. As a chemistry teacher’s assistant and tutor, I had to use the same skills, because everyone had different scientific backgrounds and different ways of learning.
How do you feel about breaking down negative stereotypes about cheerleaders? Have you faced a situation where you had to challenge a stereotype about cheerleaders or scientists?
I loved being a cheerleader / scientist. The two are not mutually exclusive. Sometimes, students would see me cheer at a game or practice, and then a few days later see me in a lab coat, directing them to the chemicals they need for that day’s organic chemistry experiment. The look of surprise was priceless.
Best cheerleading experience?
I really enjoyed my years as a cheerleader and coach, but I especially enjoyed competing at the Canadian University and Open Cheerleading Championships. The preparation for that competition was time-consuming, intense and stressful. But when you go to the competition, the adrenaline is addictive. Plus, in a competition, attitudes towards competing teams change. When you meet a rival cheerleading team during a football or basketball game, you have to act like rivals because of the game. At a competition, you’re still competing against each other, but there’s a mutual appreciation for the effort you put into your routine. When you’re performing your routine, competing teams usually sat in the front row, cheering for you and encouraging you.
Best science-related experience?
I really enjoy helping and mentoring others. Many of my best memories involve tutoring and teaching. One evening, around final exams, one of the cheerleaders I used to coach called me in a panic—her organic chemistry final exam was in 2 days and she was lost. Due to her busy schedule, she had not attended class after her 2nd midterm, and had not had time to review the material because of other exams. I invited her to my apartment and, for the next 4 hours, taught her the material she missed from class, reviewed all the course material and worked through practice problems with her. She left that review session feeling more confident about her exam and something tells me that it went well because she is now an M.D.
If you could rewind the clock and change your degree, would you? If so, to what and why? If not, why not?
I don’t think I would change my degree, because I think I learned so much from it. On the other hand, I wish I took steps to learn the practical aspects of my field, through co-op work opportunities of industrial internships. I also wish I took computer science courses.
What advice would you give your 12-year-old self?
I would tell myself to be more interested in computer programming, because they will become the basis for everything you do in the future. I would also tell myself not to fear failure because it’s a valuable learning experience. My PhD supervisor once told me that only 10% of all experiments work. On one hand, that’s not an encouraging statistic. On the other hand, the other 90% of experiments can give you a lot of information.
What’s one thing people might find especially surprising about you?
I am a petite person that loves food and has a huge appetite. I love to eat, and I’m often thinking about what to eat for dinner while I’m eating lunch.
Apart from work and cheering, what are some of your favorite activities?
When I started cheerleading at McGill, I wanted an activity to stay in shape during the cheerleading off-season. On a whim, I signed up for a 10K race and I’ve been hooked ever since. I have participated in many half-marathons, 5 marathons and I will be running another marathon on Memorial Day weekend. Like everything else in life, I shared my passion for running with everyone around me, and developed training plans for cheerleaders that were interested in running 10K races and half marathons. I also love yoga. I am a certified yoga teacher, and I have taught prenatal classes, mom & baby classes and “yoga for runners” classes at a transitional shelter.
What are your plans for the future?
I think I have found my niche as a science educator and advocate. It’s something I loved to do as a graduate student, and during my years outside of science, I never stopped mentoring. Luckily, there is a huge push for STEM education, and I want to be a part of that.
Why do you want to be a Science Cheerleader?
I think I’ve always been a science cheerleader—I just never realized it. As a coach and Teacher’s Assistant, I helped many cheerleaders and students pursue their science careers by tutoring, answering questions and writing reference letters. I also taught preschoolers; I incorporated science experiments and activities so the kids could learn about science at an early age. Kids are natural scientists, and I wanted to encourage that aspect as much as I could. I think science is worth cheering for—think of how much has changed in terms of transportation, medicine and communications technology in the past 50 years; we have science to thank for that. Now, think of what we can accomplish in the next 50 years if we encourage science education, innovation and development! I’m willing to draw attention to science and show people of all ages how to appreciate science.