Ashleigh Hope can get funny looks no matter who she talks to.
If she tells her cheerleading teammates she’s a medical biotechnology researcher their eyebrows are raised, and likewise if she tells her scientist colleagues what she does in her spare time.
The honours student at Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute is researching a rare type of breast cancer but has spent her whole life dancing.
When she’s not in the lab, she’s cheerleading for Wollongong’s NBL team as part of the Illawarra Hawks Dancers and ordinarily the St George Illawarra Dragons NRL club, although she’s taking a break this season.
“I usually get funny looks … if I say I study medical biotech to one of my teammates they’re often like, what is that,” she said in a podcast with the institute.
But Ms Hope said her two worlds had similarities, despite seeming polar opposites.
“It is a whole other world in there sometimes but at the same time, I think you can draw a lot of parallels between science and cheerleading which I think people find surprising,” she told The Scientist and the series.
“Just the camaraderie of being a team and working together to achieve a purpose – that purpose might not be as daunting as solving the problem of cancer, it could be as simple as entertaining a crowd, but it’s still a very important goal in my mind and a lot of my teammates minds.
“Another is the community spirit – seeing the community rally behind you.”
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Ms Hope, who was recently awarded the institute’s Dr Margaret Gardiner Scholarship for Medical Research, said “people still have the stereotype of the dumb blonde cheerleader”.
“Having the blonde hair I do doesn’t help,” she said.
“It’s challenging every day to have to prove you have some sort of intelligence that’s not expected of you.
“I don’t think a male PhD candidate who did footy outside of the lab … would have the same reaction (as they do with me).”
The young scientist didn’t always want to be a scientist – or even a cheerleader – but rather something more obscure.
“I wanted to be a cheesemaker,” she told the institute’s podcast, explaining French was her favourite subject in school.
“I went to France on exchange for a couple of months and I just loved cheese after that,” she said.
“But science was also a really big passion of mine so from a realistic point of view, I wanted to pursue science.”
Ms Hope said cancer had affected those around her and she found the science behind it “really fascinating” in high school.
“We didn’t learn too much about it then, we only touched on it,” she said.
“I think it’s a very personal issue so a lot of high schools beat around the bush teaching about cancer and talking about it, but that made me want to learn about more because I had no idea what cancer was and how cancer worked on a scientific level, so that made me want to delve into it a bit more.”
Ms Hope wants to raise more awareness about women in STEM – science, technology, engineering and maths – and show women they can have a successful career in academia and research without having to compromise on what they do outside of my work.