Defying Stereotypes

Biochemist wins pageant crown

Miss Virginia lands title with science outreach talent
Laurel Oldach
June 1, 2019

The experiment known as elephant toothpaste may not impress many chemists. Depending on your perspective, it may not even qualify as an experiment. But performing it onstage seems to result reproducibly in victory at beauty pageants.

It worked for Alayna Westcom, crowned Miss Vermont in 2015, and again for Camille Schrier, a doctoral candidate at Virginia Commonwealth University’s school of pharmacy, who recently won the 2019 Miss Virginia competition.

For the talent portion of the competition, Schrier demonstrated and explained a simple but impressive chemical reaction that relies on iodide to catalyze a decomposition of hydrogen peroxide into water and gaseous oxygen. Onstage, with the addition of a little soap and food coloring, the product was a bubbly, photogenic crowd-pleaser that won Schrier the preliminary talent award.

Criticized for decades as frivolous or antifeminist, beauty pageants have seen declining television ratings and heightened controversy during the Me Too movement. Pageant organizations have tried to change with the times. In 2018, the Miss America Organization rebranded, ending the swimsuit competition and focusing on contestants’ professional ambitions and plans for social impact. It was that rebrand that kindled Schrier’s interest.

Camille Schrier
Miss Virginia Organization
Camille Schrier uses chemistry to re-create a substance sometimes called “elephant toothpaste” onstage in the Miss Virginia pageant in June.

A number of past pageant winners have been scientists. Kára McCullough, a chemist at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, was crowned Miss USA in 2017. Nina Davuluri, Miss America 2014, entered pageants to win scholarship money to pursue an advanced degree in medicine and used her spotlight to advocate for science education. Erika Ebbel, Miss Massachusetts 2004 in the Miss America pageant, went on to earn a Ph.D. in biochemistry and start a biotech company and an advocacy nonprofit, Science from Scientists.

Schrier graduated from Virginia Tech with a major in biochemistry and systems biology. Now studying for a pharmacy degree, she told Virginia Tech that she hopes one day to work in the pharmaceutical industry on drug or vaccine development. For the next year, though, she’ll be on sabbatical from her Ph.D. program, touring the state to promote prescription drug safety and science, technology, engineering and mathematics education.

“I’m trying to be like Bill Nye,” she told Virginia Commonwealth University’s press team. “I want to get kids excited.”

Laurel Oldach

Laurel Oldach is a science writer for the ASBMB.

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