Name: Melissa Wallace
- Education: Bachelors Degree in Mechanical Engineering from Southern Methodist University
- Target Audience: Elementary School, Middle School, and High School
Melissa Wallace is an SMU alumna who studied Mechanical Engineering. She began her career as a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader during her senior year at SMU. She continued her career as a professional cheerleader and also began working at Texas Scottish Rite Hospital. Not only was she able to balance cheer along with her courseload, she was able to continue on and balance professional cheer along with professional engineering.
Why did you choose engineering?
Initially I chose engineering because I really liked math and science. It was something that came more naturally to me. When I came in, I was actually Civil Engineering, and I took one class, and it just wasn't for me. I was so conflicted and talked to my advisor, and she told me that I sounded like I should be Mechanical, so I went in, and the first project was to build a robot that could shoot a ping pong ball, and I loved it. Anything that I can use my hands for and build myself, I love. I was sold right after that class.
Did you always know you were interested in a career in STEM?
I actually came in thinking I wanted to go to medical school, but SMU doesn't have a pre-med major, so I did the pre-med specialty. If I did just biology, I would have to go to medical school or teach, and I didn't want to teach, so my mom recommended engineering. Engineering would be a good way to still get a job if I didn't want to go to medical school.
Have you always been involved with cheer?
I actually only cheered for two years in high school. I was a dancer my whole life, and I did competitions nationally and internationally. I got hurt my senior year, and I came to SMU and went through a semester of college, and wanted to audition for the dance program, so I did a minor there because I missed it so much. Once I finished that minor, I auditioned for the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. I just wanted to keep dancing some way.
What role do you play on the cheer squad?
We have four different groups, and each group has a first leader and a second leader. All of the first leaders have been on the squad 4-5 years, and all of the second leaders have been on 3-4 years. I'm the second leader of group 1, basically that means if they're looking for anyone to do anything extra,
like choreography, or for anyone to make certain appearances with the Jones family, usually they'll go to the leaders and second leaders. Every year, you have to go through auditions; if you come back, you come back to audition in the final round and go through the interview and training camp.
What does an average day/week look like for you?
Actually, it varies. When I'm working for the Cowboys, within the squad there's a squad called Show Group, and it's 17 of us that are a little bit more technically trained, and we travel. We do any shows that are in the states and any shows that are international; we go on the USO tours and things like that. Most full time jobs can't allow you to take off two weeks every month, so while I was doing that, I started an internship at Texas Scottish Rite Hospital, and I work in their biomechanics lab and do a lot of research with the surgeons, so in the mornings I go there and run some studies. When I get off, we have rehearsal every night, starting at 6:30. We either rehearse at the new facility in Frisco or at the stadium in Arlington, so I drive out there, and we practice. Then I drive back – usually practice will be about 3 hours, so it starts at 7 and gets done around 10. Then I go home, go to sleep, wake up, and do it all again! That's actually a normal day when there are no appearances; sometimes shows will pop up or they'll have an event at the stadium that they'll want me to be at. We just did a project with a bunch of the dance studios in the area called Moving Cities. It was phenomenal, but it took all day. We were in downtown, in uniform, stopping traffic, but the end was really cool. That was a day I wasn't at work, so I kind of have a very flexible schedule.
How do you balance engineering and professional cheerleading?
So, I actually joined the squad when I was a senior at SMU - I drank a lot of coffee; I really like black coffee. Actually, thankfully, my professors were understanding. Communication was key. As soon as I got the schedule for DCC, I let my professors know the days I absolutely would not be able to make it to class, and I let DCC know the days I absolutely had to be in school. It was a nice balance in that way, but I had to communicate with both of them very early. I couldn't spring things on them. Communication was really key in balancing everything. Some days there would be rehearsal until 11 PM, and the lab was open, so I'd get school work done then. You make it work, I guess!
Do engineering and cheer relate/overlap? How?
The immediate answer is no, but I actually found my internship at Scottish Rite through the Cowboys. We do a hospital visit every year, and go see the kids. The people at the hospital were telling me about all the research they were doing at the hospital, and it sounded really technical, and I asked if they hired engineers or if the doctors do everything, and they told me they hire biomedical engineers. Like I said before, I wanted to be a doctor and I loved engineering, and combining those two was my dream, and this job is very hands on, which I love. We're literally making the devices the doctors use, and we're doing the research. I wanted something I wasn't going to get bored doing, and this was perfect. When I found out about it, I told them I was interested, and I went on a tour the next day, where I met the biomedical engineering department. I went over one semester at SMU – I was graduating in December, and that left January and February which is when people are in school and can't do internships, and that left an internship position open. It's weird that DCC and the internship overlapped like that; but, I think it's really important to have an outlet completely different than what you're doing all day. If you're sitting in math and science classrooms for six hours a day, go be active, or go paint, or go do something else because eventually it's too much!
What’s been the biggest challenge in your career journey?
Honestly, I think everybody just doesn't know what they want to do – I didn't. You don't actually know what you want to do when you get out of college; you have this degree, and you know what you're supposed to be doing, but you don't know how to go about it. There are really great resources here, but
then I was in cheerleading and it's a part time job and we're traveling so much that no engineering company was going to hire me and let me be gone for two weeks out of the month; but then I'd be finished cheerleading, and I'd have a resume that has nothing on it. I got really lucky when I found what I did because I've learned so many skills and I've been published in papers; where else would I get to do that? You just have to find your niche, but that's one of the hardest things. All of it's new, and going in, I didn't know. I mean, I studied the mill; I knew theoretically how to work it, but I'd never actually worked a mill before. My boss was fantastic at showing me all of that, and I'm a quick learner so I picked it up fast, but I still needed someone to show me. It's just gaining confidence in those skills you studied that was hardest for me.
What do you like best about what you do?
I like the dichotomy of it. I like that one day I go and work and I'm crunching numbers and I'm in surgery the next day and then I'm doing a project on a testing machine the next day. Then I leave and go put on some makeup, do my hair, go on the field, and see my friends in that sense. I start dancing, and it's like a whole separate person. As a woman in engineering, you're always very professional because it is such a male dominated area that you want to be taken seriously, and you want to be appreciated for your intellect, so you're always very serious and very on top of things. I'm sure that's anybody in any job, really. But, then I get to go over and be really girly, and I like that. I like having that dichotomy; you want to be girly sometimes, and other times you want to be serious and really think about things. That's my favorite thing; it's that I get to go and do both things!
Do you have suggestions for students interested in STEM and cheer?
Do both! Don't get me wrong; it's not easy. There were plenty of times when I called my mom and just cried, but it's so worth it. The high times are so much more and better than any of the low. Just go for it. Find opportunities and take advantage of them. There's so many times that they're presented to you, and you think that you'd love to do that, but you never do anything about it, and I was one of those people. Then when I was finally at the hospital and offered the tour, I took them up on that offer because it was something I really did want. If it's something you really want, take people up on their offers. Really create those opportunities for yourself because nobody's going to do it if you don't. Find opportunities that you do want; it is hard, but you can find things that work.
Do you have any course recommendations for students interested in a STEM career?
I think definitely CAD is a huge one. Any software you can learn is super important. I've learned maybe 3 since I've been at the hospital, and It's so valuable because a lot of people don't know these ; it's a really valuable skill to make yourself indispensable. Anything that will make you indispensable in your major, do it because it's that leg up that you want. You want people to have to hire you because you have a skill that nobody else does. Also, 3D printers are huge right now; anything like that that's up and coming, try to get a leg up on that. I really wish I had been more involved in the Innovation Gym here at SMU.
What do you see yourself doing in the future?
Actually what I like about working at the hospital is all of the things I'm doing now. I actually hope to continue there! It's a little bit of everything. We do a lot of research, bone modeling, machining, and design. Sometimes doctors will come in and say "I want this tool to bend to the left instead of the right, and I want it to have a jaw. Can you make this?", and they'll give you free range to design it. There's a little bit of everything – research, machining, and design – but you have to be extremely organized. That's one of my favorite parts, though. There are days we're crunching numbers, but I'm on my feet and using my hands more, and that's what I wanted.
Do you get to interact with the kids at the hospital?
Not as much as I'd like to because we're in a different building, but sometimes a doctor will do a case study and will want an instrument made, and we'll get to go in and meet the kid we're making the instrument for, so that's always really nice when you get to meet them and talk with them, and you get to see what you're actually making the tool to do. Sometimes it's nice to see real life application.
I'm really weird about food, and not in the way most people think. I love anything with carbs and cheese on it, but I hate chocolate. Don't ask me why, but I make up for it in pizza, don't worry! I don't like anything that's sparkling, and I don't like hot drinks, but iced coffee is in my veins. Also, I've been dancing since I was 4, and I'm good at tricks and things like that, but I'll trip walking. I trip all the time; it's actually embarrassing how much I trip. You would think that I'm more graceful after years of dancing, but I'll perform a whole dance, and I'll trip walking off the stage. That might be a dancer thing, though – you get all your gracefulness out on stage!