Two things you rarely see in the same sentence are “cheerleader” and “research scientist.” But right now, María Díaz Ortiz is equally comfortable being both of those things, balancing these two demanding roles at the Georgia Institute of Technology with the grace of a gymnast, which would only make sense, considering she’s worn that mantle, too.
A former member of the Puerto Rican national gymnastics team, it was an easy transition to “cheerleader” at Georgia Tech for Díaz Ortiz, who works football and basketball home games and engages in cheerleading team competition, which involves a lot of tumbling, flipping and throwing people in the air.
“I like to stay grounded, so fortunately, I’m not one of the people who gets thrown into the air,” says Diaz Ortiz, a 2014 Petit Scholar, who has found that her athletic endeavors help fuel the rest of her busy life at Tech. “Oh, it definitely keeps me in shape, keeps me healthy, which is pretty important with my high-pace schedule. But I like keeping a busy schedule. It helps make me more structured. And I love cheerleading because there is a real sense of community and bonding. I’ve got great teammates.”
Díaz Ortiz, a senior in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering, sees a clear correlation between cheerleading and her work with mentor Chris Johnson in Andrés García’s lab at the Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience. Her independent research project is entitled, "A Critical Bone Defect Infection Model Utilizing an Engineered Bioluminescent Clinical Strain of Pseudomonas Aeruginosa."
“I definitely do see a parallel between cheerleading and my courses in biomedical engineering and work in the lab at the Petit Institute. You get to collaborate with people with diverse backgrounds and ideas,” she says. “Just within the lab, for example, are people who have biotech backgrounds working with mechanical engineers. You’ve got people with different strengths, working together on the same project. Same thing in cheerleading. You’ve got people who are stronger at tumbling, people who are stronger at putting other people up in the air. It’s interesting to see how people from so many different backgrounds can work so well together.”
When Díaz Ortiz arrived at Tech, she brought an interest in science, and liked the idea of doing research, but didn’t know if she wanted to be a research scientist or not. Then she interviewed with García for an opening in his lab for an undergraduate research assistant, and really dug it, and became interested in applying to the Petit Scholarship program – and the program wanted her. She was first invited to become a Petit Scholar for 2013, but at the same time, she was offered an internship with Abbott Laboratories and decided to defer her acceptance into the Petit Scholars program for a year.
“I really wanted to get a feeling for what industry was like,” she says. “I’d gotten the research experience, but didn’t have a feel for industry. It turned out to be a good learning experience for me, because it wasn’t quite what I expected, and honestly, it helped me cross out that idea.”
Planning to graduate in the spring, Díaz Ortiz is in the process of applying to M.D.-Ph.D. programs – ultimately, she wants to do clinical research.
“I haven’t decided where I want to go yet, but I’d prefer to stay near a city that is a hub of biomedical research,” she says. Her top three choices would be somewhere in Boston, California, or right here at the Tech/Emory joint biomedical engineering program. “Where ever I wind up, I feel like the Petit Scholarship experience has been good preparation for grad school. It’s definitely given me a feeling for what independent research is like."