Sunday, December 15, 2019

Beauty AND Brains

When most people think of pageants, they think of evening gowns, swimsuits and bad tap dancing (except for Mallory Hagan, Miss America 2013.  She totally nailed her routine to James Brown's "Get Up Offa That Thing"). 



But Miss America gets it.  Even before Miss Colorado 2015 and Miss Vermont 2015 eschewed typical song-and-dance performances in favor of science-related monologues (standing entertainment critics on their ear) the Miss America competition has recognized the importance of STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

A couple of years ago, the Miss America Foundation began awarding $5,000 scholarships to five state winners with strong STEM backgrounds, acknowledging the need to promote science, technology, engineering, and math education, particularly among women.

Miss America 2014, Nina Davuluri (a personal favorite), was the first Miss America to have graduated in a STEM field, with a degree in brain, behavior, and cognitive science from the University of Michigan. During a round table discussion, Davuluri told members of the STEM Education Coalition that she was proud to be a role model to young girls.

“Being smart is cool,” Davuluri said. “I didn’t walk into a role like this overnight, and I would not be as successful without my education and degree, especially with all the meetings and lobbying that you do in this role. . . . I know, when I was in high school, STEM wasn’t an acronym that people were familiar with.”



When it announced its STEM scholarships in 2013, the Miss America Foundation said:
“These scholarships will allow women to pursue numerous careers in the sciences and mathematics, fields that continue to grow exponentially as we enter into a new age of technology and medicine. . . .  The lives of women who wish to pursue careers in STEM subjects will significantly change as they engage in dynamic careers where women can thrive and grow as humans, learners, and teachers for future generations.”
The scholarship money was nice. But STEM stole the spotlight, giving viewers an educational topic to consider alongside the glitz and hairstyles. Almost overnight, nerdy became stylish and being well-versed in science, technology, and math became cool, thanks to Kelley Johnson (Colorado) and Alayna Westcom (Vermont).  Johnson broke the mold. Rather than sing, play a musical instrument or perform a magic act, she appeared on stage dressed in nurse’s scrubs, a stethoscope around her neck. She told the story of Joe, an Alzheimer’s patient she had tended to in the hospital, and brought tears to viewers’ eyes when she recalled the conversation she had when she found him crying.

“You are not defined by this disease,” she told him. “You are not just Alzheimer’s. You are still Joe.” Johnson said she was similarly moved when Joe responded: “Nurse Kelley, the same goes for you,” calling her a “lifesaver.”  On her Facebook page, Johnson, who emerged as second runner-up, responded to the post-pageant love she and the nursing profession were receiving. “This is why I did what I did,” she wrote. “This means so much to so many people. I love you, America. Thank you for reaching out to me.” Later she added (in all caps): I was completely myself—nurses all over the nation, we have won!!”

When Westcom’s turn to display talent came the following day, she became the first Miss America contestant to perform a science experiment on the pageant stage. Combining physics with chemistry, Westcom mixed potassium iodide, hydrogen peroxide, and dish soap to produce a table-dominating, foamy eruption known as “elephant’s toothpaste.”  She also mixed in a little humor: “Don’t try this at home,” she cautioned. “Try it at a friend’s home.”

Westcom, who aspired to be a medical examiner, says she took science to the stage because it reflects who she is. Proud to be labeled a “science nerd,” she labeled her Miss America platform “Success through STEM.”  “I’m so excited to be the first to bring STEM to the Miss America competition,” she told Vermont’s Seven Days newspaper. “I danced and I took singing lessons and it just wasn’t something I could invest myself into.”

Westcom travels to schools in Vermont, teaching science to young students. “When I was going to school and choosing a STEM career, I’d always been told, ‘You don’t look like a scientist’ or ‘Are you sure that’s your career choice? That’s not really for women’. Sometimes little girls can be discouraged by hearing that and redirected into a different career path, which isn’t fair.”  Westcom also thinks the Miss America Foundation deserves credit for the scholarships it provides.
“(It’s) the largest college scholarship program for young women in the United States,” she says. “That means we don’t win cars or furs coats or things like that. We win academic scholarships. That helps us pay off our loans or helps pay for school if we’re still in school. That is something not a lot of people know about.”

One of my personal favorite Miss Mississippi's, Hannah Roberts, has also been awarded STEM scholarships (in my humble opinion Hannah was robbed.  Her violin talent sounded wonky on the Atlantic City stage but having heard it in person, I can honestly say it's phenomenal).  Roberts had plans to become a pediatric reconstructive plastic surgeon and is a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi where she majored in biochemistry with a minor in biology. She was a recipient of the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship for undergraduates planning a career in science.  Roberts attended medical school at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, Mississippi.





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