Science Cheerleader

When a group of cheerleaders gather in Arizona on Friday in preparation for the Super Bowl, they'll come armed with something far more attractive than hot pants and pom-poms: advanced degrees in math and sciences.

Cheerleaders from the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks will perform in front of the Arizona Science Center in downtown Phoenix, replacing standard cheers with stanzas promoting normally musty academic subjects.

"1, 2, 3, 4 … Science opens many doors! 5, 6, 7, 8 … Let’s dance! Arms straight!" — that's just a sample.

The event is organized by Science Cheerleader, is an association of around 300 current and former professional football and basketball cheerleaders that work or study in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). The crowd won't be rowdy Pats or Seahawks fans; they'll be young women who could potentially make up the next generation of groundbreaking scientists or mathematicians.

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Former Ravens cheerleader and geologist, Joanna Tippett signs autographs in 2012. (Courtesy of Science Cheerleader)

"I was once a cheerleader, and now I’m cheering for science,” said Darlene Cavalier, founder of Science Cheerleader and a part-time professor at Arizona State University.

Considering the massive national audience that cheerleaders have each Sunday during football season, fans might not know that it's really just a part-time job. Not all cheerleaders end up with doctorates in cognitive neuroscience, but their careers cover a wide range of areas.

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When it comes to science and math careers, the Patriots are among the top of the National Football League, with 11 cheerleaders working in those fields. Melanie Sanches, a rookie Pats cheerleader and Tufts University dental student, is one of those science scholars.

Melanie Sanches. (Credit: Keith Nordstrom, Dwight Darian, David Silverman/New England Patriots)

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"Most people have careers outside of cheerleading," she said. "I think it’s great for young girls to realize that you can be a cheerleader and you can also be involved in other things."

Melanie Sanches works at Tufts University dental clinic. (Courtesy of Sanches)

The cheerleaders don't just want careers outside of the stadium — they typically need them.

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A 2014 lawsuit alleged that cheerleaders for the Oakland Raiders earned only $1,250 per year — less than $5 an hour — and were stuck footing the bill for many of their beauty expenses. The Raiders eventually settled with 90 cheerleaders for $1.25 million in back pay.

The entire concept of Science Cheerleaders sparked some controversy among feminist bloggers after their first performance in 2010. Cavalier, who cheered for the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1990s, was surprised by the negative feedback and said "a lot was misinterpreted."

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1,200 youth Pop Warner cheerleaders participate in science cheers. (Courtesy of Science Cheerleader)

"They would just see an image of this woman dressed in our Science Cheerleader outfit and think that they were just out there cheering for science, not aware that they are scientists and engineers," she said.

The two jobs — science and cheering — can actually complement each other. Lauren Schneider, a rookie Patriot with a master's degree in health education, special education and coaching from Boston University, has found symmetry between cheerleading and her professional career as a health and fitness teacher.

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Lauren Schneider. (Credit: Keith Nordstrom, Dwight Darian, David Silverman/New England Patriots)

Another Pats cheerleader, Kelly Bennion, is pursuing her Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience. For her, one of the most useful aspects of her sports job is the media training she's received, which comes in handy when presenting scientific research.

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Kelly Bennion participates in a science conference. (Courtesy of Bennion)

"I think that that has helped me become a better communicator," she said, "especially to larger audiences."

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Kelly Bennion. (Credit: Keith Nordstrom, Dwight Darian, David Silverman/New England Patriots)

Bennion is proud to recommend both her careers to young people. "They get to see that you can be very well-rounded, that you can excel in a very athletic physical domain, but also that you can excel academically," she said.

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Kevin Joyce contributed to this story.

Geneva Sands is a Washington, D.C.-based producer/editor focused on national affairs and politics. Egg creams, Raleigh and pie are three of her favorite things.