During her senior year at Temple, Darlene Cavalier decided to try out for the Philadelphia 76ers dance team. As a cheerleader for four years while she was an undergraduate, Cavalier said she just went out on a limb.
In 1991, the same year she graduated, Cavalier made the team.
Years later, Cavalier used her cheer experience and interest in science to start Science Cheerleader – an organization that, according to its website, works with 250 current and former NFL and NBA cheerleaders pursuing careers in science.
After graduating, Cavalier started working at Discover Magazine’s Technology Awards, a program that honored scientists and engineers all around the world.
“As soon as I graduated college, I worked as a part-time temp just because I was willing to do anything to have a job and learn what needed to be done,” she said. “And as it turns out, the company that I took that position at eventually hired me to a full-time position.”
Cavalier ran several of the magazine’s programs, and commuted between New York City and Philadelphia. She worked at the magazine for 10 years.
“With commuting back and forth I thought, ‘I’m not going to do this commute anymore and I’d like to actually just go to graduate school and just see how someone without a formal science degree like myself might do something with science,’” Cavalier said.
While Cavalier was in graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, she said that she learned a lot about citizen scientists, or people who don’t have a degree in the field, but have the desire to contribute to science.
Cavalier began to put together a binder of ideas and opportunities for people to get more heavily involved with science. This pushed the start of her organization, SciStarter.
SciStarter is a database that provides citizen scientists from all over the world with research opportunities, both formal and informal.
The database currently partners with other organizations like Discover Magazine, WHYY and the National Science Teachers Association.
“There are two offshoots to this, because when I was in grad school I also learned a little bit more about how people can play a role not just in doing the science and helping with research,” she said. “It also is shaping science policy and having direct conversations with people who are making the policy.”
Cavalier is also the founder of Science Cheerleader, a website and organization that works with a mix of current and former NFL and NBA cheerleaders who have or want to pursue a career in science.
“I help put the alumni cheerleaders in front of young cheerleaders in particular to help challenge stereotypes and encourage people to consider science careers,” Cavalier said.
The 250 members of the organization have science degrees and are pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering or math, according to Science Cheerleader’s website.
“It’s been a lot of fun and it’s a really great way to shine a bright light on science, citizen science and women in science,” Cavalier said.
“We had a science fair at the Sixers game this time last year where we had the stadium cheering for science,” Cavalier added. “We also had the Science Cheerleaders performing at halftime, we had the citizen science projects taking place on the concourse and we actually had microbe collection kits shot out of T-shirt cannons – it was so much fun.”
Cavalier’s main goal through these programs is to show others that a science degree isn’t necessary to get involved in the scientific community.
Cavalier said that the group is currently wrapping up a project with NASA called NASA’s Asteroid Initiative. More people are becoming informed about plans to detect and mitigate asteroids.
“Any job that you’re doing, pay attention to what you’re doing and truly do the best that you can because those skills and experiences have a way of combining later in life, in a way that may help you forge a new path,” Cavalier said. “What may seem like disconnected experiences have a way of joining forces later in life.”
Julia Chiango can be reached at [email protected]