A recent national STEM related event hosted in Tempe last Saturday combined a few components that may appear mismatched at first glance, but are much more logical when given a steadier second look.
The event — held at the Arizona Cardinals' training facility on July 20 — featured members of the Cardinals’ cheerleading squad swabbing their shoes and cell phones to collect microbe samples later sent to a lab at the University of California Davis for analysis. Microbes are microscopic single-cell organisms that have existed for millions of years and are found just about everywhere on the planet.
The event was part of the Arizona SciTech Festival, which features collaborators from across Arizona who promote STEM, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics, projects and innovations. One of the collaborators is the Town of Gilbert, which Arizona SciTech Festival Communications and Development Director Charlotte Hodel said in an email will host a women in STEM program during the winter of 2014.
Saturday’s collection also falls under the auspices of Project MERCURRI — a research project where scientists gather microbe samples from other locations around the country and even from the International Space Station. While some samples, like those collected in Tempe, will remain in California to study, 40 others from NFL and NBA stadiums and arenas across the country will be sent to the International Space Station and compete in an outer-space playoff — a San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens rematch is one possible matchup — and researchers will run a duplicate experiment on earth.
SciStarter founder Darlene Cavalier said the purpose is to compare the microbe behavior on earth with those found in a zero-gravity environment and to create both a benchmark for future research and a map of microbial patterns for different cities.
“There hasn’t been a lot of research there,” she said about the former component.
Project MERCURRI features four other groups collaborating with the UC Davis lab and SciStarter: NASA, Space Florida, Nanoracks and Science Cheerleaders. The lattermost organization, which Cavalier also founded, is the reason why the Arizona Cardinals’ cheerleaders were involved in the Gilbert swabbing event.
The Cardinals’ cheerleaders, she added, have had several members participate in Science Cheerleaders in the past, and the collaboration with the two is strong enough that microbe samples from the team’s home field, University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, will be among the 40 sent to the International Space Station.
“They’re among my favorite teams to work with in the NFL,” she added.
Given the disparate nature of the groups collaborating on Project MERCURRI, Cavalier said it’s usually the Science Cheerleaders who get “written off as fluff” by people who look at the project from the outside. But it was actually started by former cheerleaders — one of whom works for NASA and the other a bio-molecular engineering student at UC Davis — who submitted the project to an International Space Station competition. Project MERCURRI ended up as one of eight projects tabbed by the selection committee, and all eight projects will be sent to the space station for further research.
Cheerleaders who double as scientists defy a common stereotype directed at cheerleaders, and Cavalier said one of Science Cheerleaders’ purposes is to break those kinds of assumptions people have about cheerleaders. Cheerleading is not a full-time job — Cavalier said she earned about $50 a game when she cheered at Philadelphia 76ers games — and teams target cheerleaders who can represent their brand off the field or court. Those people, she said, need to be intelligent, articulate and able to work in a team setting.
“They’re skills that translate very well to science and engineering,” she said.
The consequences of those stereotypes aren’t limited to the general populace, as Cavalier said female researchers had to remove any traces of their femininity to work in a lab. A scientist who admitted she was a cheerleader would have committed “career suicide” a generation or two ago.
Things are getting better now though, and Cavalier said events like the one held in Tempe provide female and male students information about careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics while inspiring them to pursue all of their aspirations in life.
“You can be a cheerleader and be great at it, but you can do many, many, many other things,” she said.
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