June 23, 2017  

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Miss Mississippi, Glass Beakers and Glass Slippers

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I’d been waiting on this conversation for eight months. Then it happened on Sunday, and I couldn’t be more pleased. Here’s the short version.

“Why do you have pink goggles in your office?” my 6-year-old asked me.

“It’s because we’re supporting Miss Hannah in the Miss America Pageant, and she wears pink goggles when she’s learning about science,” I said.

“She likes science?” my daughter inquired.

The conversation continued and concluded with a very excited 6-year-old recalling the story of an elementary experiment conducted by her first-grade teacher.

For those of you who have not been following to this point, “Miss Hannah” is Hannah Roberts, recent University of Southern Mississippi graduate and reigning Miss Mississippi, who is competing in the Miss America Pageant this week. The pageant concludes on Sunday evening in Atlantic City. USM’s “chemistry queen” was the top student in the College of Science and Technology last year and earned a biochemistry degree. She was also an Honors College student and has already been accepted to medical school. In 2013, Roberts was one of only three Mississippians to be honored with a Goldwater Scholarship, which recognizes top students in the sciences nationwide. Yes, she wears pink safety googles, likes science, and is awesome at it.

For those of you who have followed along for the past eight months, you know that my colleagues in University Communications and I have not been bashful about our support for Hannah in her pursuit of Miss America, and long before she was even Miss Mississippi. That support may not come as a surprise—it’s part of the job of attracting positive attention to The University of Southern Mississippi. It’s also true that Hannah is a fine representative of our institution and our state—and that may help change a stereotype or two held by the millions of television viewers who will watch the pageant on Sunday.

Specifically, I have been unashamed about my uncommon interest in the Miss America Pageant this year—that’s because of that one conversation with my daughter and hopefully many more to come. Promotion is part of my profession, but in this case it’s also very, very personal. The world may foolishly try to make my daughters believe that the only career choices available to them are those typically held by females. I won’t. If their daddy has anything to say about it, they’ll see all doors as open and choose any career in which they will be successful and fulfilled. As Hannah has told me, “We tend to put women in specific boxes. I learned early on those boxes weren’t for me.” I hope my daughters memorize that quote.

Yes, I realize there is significant irony in my argument that a pageant queen is one answer to concerns about gender roles. But while I’d like to believe that my daughters will listen to everything their dad tells them, it will also help to have Hannah, who in their minds is a princess—one more interested in glass beakers than glass slippers—offering the same support. It also seems equally preposterous to dedicate only 50 percent of our brainpower to science, which we do when we fail to encourage young women to enter these careers. Imagine only giving a half-hearted effort to curing cancer or ALS. Or imagine that you could pick from only half of the world’s best heart surgeons for an upcoming operation. You’d want the smartest doctor on the job, because it’s literally life or death. But when young women—intelligent, talented young women—do not pursue those careers, we have effectively cut our talent pool in half for some of the most important work we have to do.

Near the top of the list of why I’m especially hopeful for Miss Mississippi in this year’s pageant is because it will give her a platform to continue to encourage young women to pursue careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. One of those young women may save my life one day. It may be my daughter, and she may save yours. That’s a darn good reason you should be cheering for Miss Mississippi on Sunday, too.